Throughout the recession and subsequent recovery, one of the few job opportunities that have remained largely unaffected, if not growing, has been food service. From eateries to fast-food chains, this broad industry has gained an impressive 30 percent in employment since 1990, accounting for nearly one out of ten private-sector jobs in the U.S.
Unfortunately, a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute exposes some very disquieting things about one of America’s fastest-growing employers. Here are some of the highlights courtesy of Mother Jones:
The industry’s wages have stagnated at an extremely low level. Restaurant workers’ median wage stands at $10 per hour, tips included—and hasn’t budged, in inflation-adjusted terms, since 2000. For nonrestaurant US workers, the median hourly wage is $18. That means the median restaurant worker makes 44 percent less than other workers. Benefits are also rare—just 14.4 percent of restaurant workers have employer-sponsored health insurance and 8.4 percent have pensions, vs. 48.7 percent and 41.8 percent, respectively, for other workers.
Unionization rates are minuscule. Presumably, it would be more difficult to keep wages throttled at such a low level if restaurant workers could bargain collectively. But just 1.8 percent of restaurant workers belong to unions, about one-seventh of the rate for nonrestaurant workers. Restaurant workers who do belong to unions are much more likely to have benefits than their nonunion peers.
As a result, the people who prepare and serve you food are pretty likely to live in poverty. The overall poverty rate stands at 6.3 percent. For restaurant workers, the rate is 16.7 percent. For families, researchers often look at twice the poverty threshold as proxy for what it takes to make ends meet, EPI reports. More than 40 percent of restaurant workers live below twice the poverty line—that’s double the rate of non-restaurant workers.
Opportunity for advancement is pretty limited. I was surprised to learn that for every single occupation with restaurants—from dishwashers to chefs to managers—the median hourly wage is much less than the national average of $18. The highest paid occupation is manager, with a median hourly wage of $15.42. The lowest is “cashiers and counter attendants” (median wage: $8.23), while the most prevalent of restaurant workers, waiters and waitresses, who make up nearly a quarter of the industry’s workforce, make a median wage of just $10.15. The one that has gained the most glory in recent years, “chefs and head cooks,” offers a median wage of just $12.34.
Industry occupations are highly skewed along gender and race lines. Higher-paid occupations are more likely to be held by men—chefs, cooks, and managers, for example, are 86 percent, 73 percent, and 53 percent male, respectively. Lower-paid positions tend to be dominated by women: for example, host and hostess (84.9 percent female), cashiers and counter attendants (75.1 percent), and waiters and waitresses (70.8 percent). I took up this topic in a piece on the vexed gender politics of culinary prestige last year. Meanwhile, “blacks are disproportionately likely to be cashiers/counter attendants, the lowest-paid occupation in the industry,” while “Hispanics are disproportionately likely to be dishwashers, dining room attendants, or cooks, also relatively low-paid occupations,” the report found.
Restaurants lean heavily on the most disempowered workers of all—undocumented immigrants. Overall, 15.7 percent of US restaurant workers are undocumented, nearly twice the rate for non-restaurant sectors. Fully a third of dishwashers, nearly 30 percent of non-chef cooks, and more than a quarter of bussers are undocumented, the report found. So a huge swath of the people who feed you pay payroll taxes and sales taxes yet don’t receive the rights of citizenship.
All of this reflects a rather disturbing overall trend in the U.S. economy: the loss of stable, well-paying jobs to less secure, low-wage ones. Not only has job growth not kept pace with the needs of the labor force, but the relatively few options that remain share largely the same characteristics: meager pay, little to no benefits, no paid sick leave, poor upward mobility, and so on. And since this has become standard across the industry — baring only a few examples — most companies have little incentive to offer anything better to their workers — in essence, it is a race to the bottom, one that desperate workers of all ages have no choice but to take up.
Needless to say, this is not a sustainable model for prosperity. Not only do individual employees suffer, but so do their families and communities (the poorest of which often have few options beyond food service and equally low-paying retail). The national economy as a whole cannot thrive when such a large chunk of its consumer base is too poor to afford goods and services, or too unhealthy and demoralized to work at optimal productivity. These highly profitable employers have as much an interest in investing more in their labor force as the workers themselves.
For its part, the EPI report suggests legislative solutions, including a higher minimum wage, mandated paid sick leave, and a path to legal status for undocumented workers. I would add unionization or some sort of labor collective as a big step, too. For its part, MoJo recommends that those wishing to learn more about the working conditions in America’s food industry read the 2013 book Behind the Kitchen Door by Saru Jayaraman.
As fast-food, retail, and other service work continues to take the place of increasingly obsolete but better-paying positions, we need to start adjusting the way we value such labor; otherwise, unpleasant, beggaring jobs will be the new normal, and that cannot last.