DC Restaurant Workers Underpaid, Unsafe And Likely Subject To Discrimination

A restaurant worker’s life is not a happy one — here in the District, as generally nationwide. This is the main message of a new report by Restaurant Opportunities Center United, its Washington D.C. affiliate and a diverse local restaurant industry coalition.

The report strains hard at times to confirm what seem to be predetermined conclusions — specifically, conclusions that align with a framework set by previous ROC affiliate reports and a synthesis of these issued last September.

It also, to my mind, sets some awfully high — one might even say unrealistic — standards.

For example, it proceeds from the view that all restaurant workers should be paid a “livable wage,” defined as what the Economic Policy Institute’s family budget calculator shows a family of three would need to pay for basic living costs in the District.

That comes to $21.89 per hour — $45,531 a year for full-time work. Seems to me very high for entry-level jobs that require no formal education or certification.

On the other hand, a wage structure that leaves 23.1% of local restaurant workers below the federal poverty line seems out of kilter too.

More generally, the authors are obviously on firm ground when they say there are many “bad” jobs in the D.C. restaurant industry and few “good” ones.

The worst of the bad involve violations of existing laws and regulations.

Of the 510 D.C. restaurant workers surveyed:

  • 33.5% reported not getting overtime pay when they worked more than 40 hours in the week.
  • 35.4% said they’d been required to work “off the clock,” i.e., for no pay at all.
  • 11.4% got paid less than the legal minimum — at least in some cases because their tips didn’t suffice to bring their wages up to the regular $8.25 an hour minimum and their employers didn’t make up the difference, as the law requires.
  • Nearly 30% reported having to work in an unsafely hot kitchen.
  • Percentages reporting other violations of federal health and safety regulations ranged from 15% to 23.5%. We’re talking here about imminent hazards, e.g., non-functioning fire extinguishers, missing guards on cutting machines, no floor mats to prevent slip and falls.

And then there are certainly indicators of race and ethnicity discrimination. For example, 78.8% of the white workers surveyed worked in “front of the house” positions, e.g., as wait servers, where wages are generally higher and tips more likely. Only 34.8% of “workers of color” did.

Given that the latter comprise a very large majority of the D.C. restaurant workforce, it’s hard to believe they’ve got the equal opportunity our federal and local laws are supposed to guarantee.

So first and foremost, we clearly need more aggressive enforcement of the laws on the books. But we also need some policy changes.

As the report says, the District’s paid sick leave law should be expanded to cover restaurant tip-wage workers. Their exclusion reflects nothing but the strength of the Washington metro area restaurant association and allies. It’s a danger to public health and a source of wage losses as well.

At the very least, the District should also increase its tip wage — unless, of course, Congress passes the recently reintroduced WAGES Act, which would ultimately bring the federal tip wage up to at least $5.50 an hour. But, of course, this Congress will do no such thing.

An alternative not raised in the report would be to eliminate the tip wage altogether. The seven states with no tip wage have plenty of restaurants, hotels and other businesses where workers get tips.

So whatever yammering we’d hear from the trade associations, local enterprises wouldn’t fold, flee or lay off staff either. Not, at any rate, unless they’re grossly mismanaged or already about to go under.

The report also recommends some incentives to encourage what it calls “high-road practices,” e.g., providing livable wages, basic benefits and opportunities for advancement. I doubt they’d do much to convert the low-roaders. But they could level the playing field a bit.

Because there apparently are some restaurants that do relatively well by their workers. Proof positive that you don’t have to engage in as much exploitation as you can get away with to turn a reasonable profit in what’s admittedly a very challenging industry.


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