No Romance in Valentine’s Day for Restaurant Workers

Kari Lydersen

For many people, Valentine’s Day is all about a romantic dinner at a classy restaurant, sipping expensive wine and enjoying multi-course meals and delicate desserts.

For kitchen workers at these fine restaurants, the holiday often fills them with dread.

The issues that restaurant workers complain of all year around — low wages, long hours, dangerous and grueling conditions, pressure to come to work sick —are exacerbated many-fold. Valentine’s is a big money-making day for restaurants, especially white table cloth ones, and they need all their staff on board, pulling extra-long shifts, working at an especially rapid pace, even if they are sick or exhausted.

So the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), a national labor rights group, has made a Valentine’s Day tradition of calling upon employers, legislators and the public to recognize the rights and needs of the hard-working folks who make their romantic night happen.

On Monday, ROC members around the country delivered Valentine’s treats to legislators asking them to pass the WAGES Act (Working for Adequate Gains in Employment in Services), which would raise the base pay for tipped employees from the current rate of $2.13 per hour to $3.75 per hour three months after enactment and at least $5.50 per hour by 2013. The bill was introduced by U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.).

For Valentine’s Day in Chicago, ROC members delivered a heart-shaped cake to U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, then went to the state capitol to ask state legislators to raise the state minimum wage. Elsewhere ROC members met with supporters in Congress including Yvette Clarke in New York, Cedric Richmond in New Orleans, Hansen Clarke in Detroit, John Lewis in Atlanta and Mark Pryor in Arkansas. They held events in different cities, with speakers including Nickel and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich, Assistant Secretary of Labor Bill Spriggs and Tom Saenz, General Counsel of the Mexican American Defense & Education League (MALDEF).

On February 14, the group also released the latest installment in its series of Behind the Kitchen Door” studies documenting illegal, unsafe and unsavory conditions in kitchens, this time in Washington D.C., Miami and Los Angeles, based on interviews with more than 1,700 workers and 100 employers.

The findings echoed those of studies in other cities: rampant unpaid overtime, minimum wage violations, retaliation, harassment and discrimination, among other complaints. In the Washington D.C. study, based on 510 surveys and 30 indepth interviews with workers, 89 percent of workers said they do not get health insurance through their employer and 79 percent do not get paid sick days.

The report says:

Workers consistently reported personal stress from fear of getting sick or hurt as well as difficulties of paying out-of pocket medical costs. A server and bartender with 13 years industry experience told us that she felt guilty because she had to have her son donate a kidney to save her mother because she could not take the risk without having health insurance.

The study says the Washington D.C. restaurant industry employs 36,000 workers and accounts for $2.4 billion in revenue annually. It found restaurant employment has grown proportionate to other industries in the capitol in the past decade, from about 6.4 percent of private sector employment in 2000 to 7.8 percent today. 

Washington restaurant workers in the capitol are predominantly African-American – almost half the workforce, and Latinos make up a disproportionate share of the industry compared to their overall population.

The report charges that the low wages in the restaurant industry, combined with the high number of African Americans employed, contribute to the vast wealth disparity between blacks and whites in Washington. The ROC study cites statistics that in 2008 the district’s mean income for whites was $101,000 a year, while for blacks it was only $39,000.

The average restaurant worker makes only $23,000 a year, the study says, with most Washington restaurant positions paying $9 to $12 per hour. The Economic Policy Institute has pegged the local living wage at $21 an hour because of the high cost of living.

Workers say busy days like Valentine’s Day are when they are most likely to be burned, cut or otherwise injured, due to the fast pace, high stress level and extra cooks in the kitchen. In the Washington survey, half the workers reported being burnt and half being cut at work, and 40 percent were exposed to toxic chemicals. 

A cook of seven years described some of the risks they faced Monday night while other people were busy making googly eyes at each other across the table:

…Open flames, falling knives, picking up and being run into with hot dishes, broken glassware, slipping and falling…customers throwing things at you.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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