Tell Us How We Did

Patrick Abatiell

In 1928, Eric Blair, an unemployed, itinerant writer and former British colonial policeman, went to work as a dishwasher in a Paris hotel. Five years later, under the pen name George Orwell, Blair would assemble his reflections on the lives of Parisian service laborers into the first part of a gritty satirical memoir called, Down and Out in Paris and London.

An upwardly mobile, Eton-educated Socialist from a “lower-upper-middle class” background, Orwell was uniquely positioned to investigate the condition of the working class, and to draw out the uneasy proximity workers have historically maintained with the class that employs them. His analysis is both incisive and parodic, characterized by the diffident, almost withering bemusement that became the hallmark of his nonfiction. He writes, “it was amusing to look round the filthy little scullery and think that only a double door was between us and the dining-room. There sat the customers in all their splendour … and here, just a few feet away, we in our disgusting filth. For it really was disgusting filth.” Physically, the two groups share an alarming intimacy, but the flimsy, permeable barrier between them provides an almost unbridgeable conceptual gulf. In Orwell’s account, a set of double doors is all it takes to enable the rich to deny the harsh conditions of the class that serves them. This is as true for service workers today as it was for Eric Blair.

As Saru Jayaraman documents in her recent book, Forked: A New Standard for American Dining, contemporary restaurant workers are among the most precarious and mistreated members of the US workforce. The degree and scope of the restaurant world’s abuse of its workers may be common knowledge to those employed in the industry. But in making this knowledge public and grounding it in years of collaborative research, Jayaraman’s study marks an important step forward for labor justice and workplace equity.

Despite its massive scale, the mistreatment of workers in the food service industry has remained largely invisible to the restaurant-going public. This may largely be due to the fact that restaurant workers themselves are tasked with maintaining the illusion of their own security. Orwell notes the transformation one waiter makes as he moves across the fine line separating grimy kitchen from glamorous dining room: “As he passes the door a sudden change comes over him. The set of his shoulders alters; all the dirt and hurry and irritation have dropped off in an instant … you could not help thinking, as you saw him bow and smile with that benign smile of a trained waiter, that the customer was put to shame by having such an aristocrat serve him.” The scene would be funny if it weren’t also so disturbing, and so relevant today.

In 2001, Jayaraman cofounded the Restaurant Opportunities Center, a not-for-profit research and labor advocacy group currently housed in the Labor Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley. The ROC’s work is directed toward improving wages and working conditions for the nation’s 11 million restaurant employees. Over its 15-year existence, the organization has detailed the declining security of American’s restaurant workers, publishing a series of reports that describe the industry’s runaway practices of discrimination and worker exploitation. Today restaurant laborers stand as one of the country’s most vulnerable and most thoroughly disenfranchised workforces.

SHO Shaun Hergatt, New York City, 2010. Photograph by Meng He / Flickr

Forked assembles the bulk of the ROC’s research into a bleak panorama of an industry that is thriving at the expense of its workers. Foodies, take heed: the recent glut of media attention to food and restaurants may have been a boon for restaurant owners, but the situation for laborers remains dire. As Jayaraman succinctly puts it, “while it is one of the largest and fastest-growing segments of the United States economy, [the restaurant industry] is also the absolute lowest-paying employer in the United States.”

According to Jayaraman, only about 20 percent of industry jobs pay a living wage, and ROC studies have shown that these top-paying positions are (perhaps unsurprisingly) most often held by white men. The restaurant industry employs the nation’s largest contingent of minimum-wage workers. Benefits like health insurance and paid sick leave are rare. This means that half of all of the nation’s food-service employees rely on some form of public assistance. As Jayaraman points out in an earlier book, Behind the Kitchen Door (2014), restaurant workers rely on food stamps at twice the rate of the rest of the US workforce. Lest we fall back on the conventional assumption that these statistics derive primarily from the fast-food or other lower-end segments of the industry, Jayaraman reminds us that “currently, restaurants workers occupy seven of the ten lowest-paid occupations reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics; at least four of these are in full-service restaurants.”

In Jayaraman’s account, these crisis conditions stem primarily from a federally instantiated “two-tiered wage system,” which maintains a separate hourly minimum for tipped workers far below the standard national minimum wage. Due to the efforts of the National Restaurant Association, the trade lobbying group that Jayaraman and the ROC have nicknamed the “Other NRA,” the national tipped minimum has been frozen at $2.13 per hour since 1991. Compare this to the federal minimum for non-tipped workers, which in the same period has risen from $4.25 to (a still meager) $7.25 per hour, and you start to see the problem.

This extremely low hourly minimum makes many restaurant workers entirely reliant on tips in order to sustain themselves. As Jayaraman argues, this creates an “untenable economic situation” for employees, whose incomes therefore fluctuate “by year, season, week, shift, and hour, [and] with the varied whims of customers.” It is precisely because of this uncertainty and this dependence on customer whim that tipped workers are routinely obligated to endure all manner of exploitation and abuse—from customers as well as from coworkers, supervisors, and employers. Forked informs us that 37 percent of all sexual harassment complaints made to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission come from the restaurant industry, and the vast majority of those who have experienced harassment are women.

One-time CEO of the “Other NRA” Herman Cain speaking at a press conference to reject allegations of sexual harassment in Scottsdale, AZ (2011). Photograph by Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Despite the organization’s emphasis on the precarity of service employees who receive tips, Jayaraman concedes that the situation may be even worse for the industry’s non-tipped workers, who perform jobs, such as cooking food and washing dishes, that are typically outside public view. This relative invisibility ensures that these jobs are among the industry’s least well compensated, and ROC studies show that these jobs are far more likely to be occupied by workers of color, for whom it is often extremely difficult, if not altogether impossible, to advance to more secure, higher-paying positions. For these reasons, ROC has undertaken a considerable lobbying effort directed toward pushing federal and state-level legislatures both to eliminate the two-tiered system, and to raise wage minimums overall to ensure a living wage for all workers.

Throughout Forked, Jayaraman advises readers to look beyond the boundaries of her book to find ways to involve themselves in the larger struggle for worker justice. Describing an industry in crisis is tremendously important, of course, but the point is to change it. And so in addition to lobbying legislatures, Jayaraman also addresses both the restaurant-going public and restaurant owners, in an effort to move them to act on behalf of service workers.

Restaurateurs, Jayaraman argues, find themselves at a fork in the road. They may choose to follow the more clearly delineated trails marked out by corporate restaurant chains like Olive Garden and Denny’s, where the push for profitability has driven management to slash employee wages and eliminate benefits. Alternately, they may find inspiration in the more idiosyncratic and unconventional paths taken by what Jayaraman calls “high-road employers,” whose efforts to conceive of business models that take working conditions into account comprise the bulk of Forked.

Chain restaurants feature prominently in the ROC’s rhetoric and publications because of both the scale and the sheer crassness of their “low-road” operations. But restaurants at every level, from fast food to fine dining, have tended to operate according to a common wisdom that hangs profitability on lowering labor costs. It makes sense, then, that Jayaraman sees some potential in holding up alternative examples—to demonstrate that it is, in fact, possible to succeed in business and to compensate workers fairly and equitably.

In an effort to draw attention to business owners whose operations pass ROC muster, the group has developed a Diners Guide app. The purpose of the app is twofold: to make an archive of “high-road” businesses available for discerning diners on the go, and, in turn, to compile customers’ impressions about the apparent labor conditions of the restaurants they patronize. Restaurants qualify for inclusion, it seems, if they meet at least a few—it’s not entirely clear how many—of the four standards for high-road employment as defined by the ROC: providing paid sick leave, offering wages in excess of $7 an hour for tipped workers, paying non-tipped workers $10 an hour, and delineating opportunities for internal advancement regardless of race or gender identity. It is either a design flaw or a doleful reflection of the state of things that, at present, the list of acceptable operations in New York City, where restaurants number in the tens of thousands, contains only 40 or so entries, a dozen of which are repeat entries for the burger chain Shake Shack.

The app is far better in intent than in execution. The limited number of sanctioned options makes it feel at best unhelpful, and at worst coercive. So far, ROC-approved restaurants in New York seem to be drawn from only a handful of restaurant groups. Even then, it’s not entirely clear why some of the businesses listed have made the cut at all. Tom Colicchio’s Craftbar, for instance, fails to meet two of the four ROC standards, but is still somehow included.

For all its insistence on recalibrating our attention to focus on working conditions, “Forked” has little to say about the ways in which workers themselves might constitute a force for change within their industry.    

All in all, the thinking behind the Diners Guide is keeping with the ROC’s ongoing strategy of rallying diners to agitate for change. This may, however, signal an even more significant shortcoming, one that is shared by both the app and Jayaraman’s broader project. Jayaraman has made a concerted effort to persuade consumers to consider working conditions for service laborers when making decisions about where and how they spend their money, and to express dissatisfaction to managers and owners when symptoms of injustice, discrimination, and exploitation become visible. In some sense, this strategy is ingeniously perverse. There is perhaps no group of consumers more fully primed to offer criticism than restaurant diners, and perhaps no industry more responsive to customer feedback than the service world. Given that this discursive circuit already exists, Jayaraman proposes we mobilize it as an avenue for addressing issues of labor justice.

In fine dining especially, businesses thrive on providing customers not only with expensive, aestheticized fare, but also, and perhaps even more importantly, with the opportunity to occupy a position of critical authority. The problem, for Jayaraman, is that the categories that give shape to this critical practice routinely miss the mark. “A restaurant’s worth,” she argues, “is largely measured by what critics say about it. Publications like Zagat’s, Michelin Guide, and New York Times may differ in their subjects or tone, but they all evaluate based on the same basic criteria: food, service, ambiance, value.” The missing component, for Jayaraman, is an attention to labor. “Our food-fetishizing culture,” she argues, “has taken restaurant criticism a step further by emphasizing the importance of food sourcing as a measure of the restaurant’s overall quality. … What’s hidden in plain sight as we talk and talk about food is the glaring mistreatment of people whose work makes restaurants such an integral part of the US culture and economy.”

Don’t like what you see? There’s already a well-trod solution for handling customer displeasure: speak with a manager. Jayaraman uses her own experience as an example: “I like to say to owners at the end of my meal, ‘I loved the food. I loved the service. I’d love to keep coming here, but … it’s important for me to know that your workers are paid a living wage, provided paid sick days, and provided lots of opportunities to move up the ladder, regardless of race and gender.’”

The idea that restaurant customers’ compulsion to provide feedback might be recalibrated to take into account issues like wage fairness and gender equity is certainly intoxicating. And it satisfies a certain utopian longing to imagine that their response might be powerful and pervasive enough to motivate restaurant owners to adjust their ways of doing business. Yet there is something unsettling about an argument for labor justice that locates political agency primarily in consumers and employers—that is, in those who have the least at stake in raising wages and ensuring workplace equity—rather than in workers themselves.

For all its insistence on recalibrating our attention to focus on working conditions, Forked has little to say about the ways in which workers themselves might constitute a force for change within their industry. Instead, Jayaraman offers us a tidy fantasy where benevolent entrepreneurs actively court customer feedback about how they pay, treat, and promote their employees, and where consumers are ethically motivated to advocate on behalf of workers.

The consequences of substituting a consumer-driven model of labor advocacy for a worker-driven one are not, however, merely conceptual. They are, rather, insistently material. There is a good deal at stake in the choice between Jayaraman’s peculiar vision and one in which workers mobilize themselves in order to agitate for their own particular political and ethical demands. This divergence is especially important because the restaurant industry has already identified a consumer demand for at least the semblance of worker justice: identified it, that is, as both prevalent and potentially very lucrative for owners and operators.

George Orwell says, “Don’t let it happen, it depends on you.” Photograph by Mark Blieux / Flickr

Whether it be a sustainably raised piece of produce or a costly fine-dining experience wreathed in the promise that employees are substantively cared for, the food and dining world has, in recent decades, mastered the process of designing and marketing products that satisfy the particular ethical demands of customers. However, this hasn’t by any means ensured that workers have been compensated fairly for their role in making them.

Several prominent figures in the fine-dining world in fact owe their success to the savvy ways in which they have packaged worker happiness as part of the brand experience of dining in their restaurants. Customers have flocked to these places, in large part because they are comforted by the belief that they are making a principled choice about how and where they spend their money. In these cases, the image of worker happiness is in fact a substantial and substantive part of the commodity on offer. But Jayaraman’s model leaves us no way to deal with the profound irony that it is possible for owners both to task workers with producing a sense of their own pleasure and security, and then to underpay them for doing so.

Although it has recently proven extremely beneficial for restaurant owners to brand themselves as concerned with worker justice, it’s important to keep in mind that these avowals have by no means produced meaningful improvements for restaurant workers. Some purportedly labor-conscious restaurateurs have in fact amassed considerable wealth based on the labor of individuals whom they continue to compensate with dismally low wages. We could argue that this represents a troubling paradox. We could also argue that it’s unconscionable.

Customer demand may have a role to play in encouraging owners to act ethically in how they treat and compensate their employees. But the role is necessarily limited. Customers are, in fact, incentivized to care about workers only insofar as it enables them to feel satisfied that they’ve shopped virtuously; owners, accordingly, are incentivized to care only insofar as they’re able to satisfy a consumer demand for at least the semblance of workplace justice. Fundamentally, we must keep in mind that customer satisfaction is neither an ethical category nor a political one, and that a working environment that seems just and equitable enough to placate consumer desire isn’t the same as one that fulfills the demands of workers.

The task now is for workers to take all this to heart and to collectively demand the overhaul we are owed. The effort seems immense, but the shock could be seismic. There are 11 million of us, after all, behind those double doors.