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Restaurants weren’t great places to work before the pandemic. Low pay, hostile customers, a general lack of benefits, and job security all combined to ensure that, “with few exceptions, the workers in a restaurant want one thing more than anything else: to no longer be workers in a restaurant” (PM Press). The data backs this up: foodservice is the industry with the lowest average time spent at a workplace, and more than half of food service workers wish to leave the industry (HuffPost). Nine out of ten female restaurant workers report experiencing sexual harassment on the job. Seven out of then male restaurant workers do, as well (HBR). A report found nine of out ten fast-food workers suffered workplace injuries in the last year (Safety+Health).
Set schedules, healthcare, and opportunities for advancement are scarce in the industry. And the rise of app-based delivery services makes working conditions even worse. Tips given through apps like Grubhub or Uber Eats go to the delivery driver, not restaurant staff (Coworker). It’s no wonder that a number of food service workers are refusing to return to low-pay, low-respect, precarious work.
After the 2008 Great Recession, many people were pushed into restaurants and other service industry jobs: it was the one sector that continued growing even at the height of the recession and has increased by almost 29% since 2000 (Bureau of Labor Statistics). Today, over 11 million people work in the industry (Statista). That’s almost one in ten American workers. And like other low-wage jobs, Black, Latinx, and Asian people are both overrepresented and paid less than their white coworkers (Race Forward).
The labor union UNITE HERE surveyed Baltimore-Washington International Airport concessions workers. They found that Black workers were six times more likely to work at fast food locations and three times more likely to work less lucrative back of house positions like cook or dishwasher. Of those who worked the lowest-paying service jobs at the airport, only 5% were white (Huffington Post). Across the industry, Latina workers make $.50 for every $1 that white male workers receive (Sociological Images).
Laura Alonso worked as a waitress, fast food, and catering worker for over eight years, during which time she faced low pay, inconsistent schedules, and disrespect from managers. “Some of my friends, they were discriminated against at their work because they were Latinos or because we don’t speak English very well,” she told Anti-Racism Daily.
While working as a caterer in the cafeteria in Intel headquarters, she was rushing to move a large drink container when it fell and gravely injured her foot. She is barely recovering from the injury eight years later. “Intel was horrible. They destroyed my life,” said Alonso. “We were under a lot of pressure from the managers. They didn’t care about us, just about making money for the company.” Before winning employer-provided health insurance through a union organizing drive, she depended on Medicaid for healthcare.
Though just one in one hundred U.S. restaurant workers are part of a union, workers across the country are working to change that (N.Y. Times). Other organizations are rallying to raise the minimum wage and end a loophole that allows employers in many states to pay tipped employees less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
Restaurants across the country as posting signs declaring “nobody wants to work,” as if food service workers were refusing to return based on personal moral failings (The Guardian). In fact, labor shortages are attributable to workers having more options, meaning they are no longer forced to work food service jobs (Business Insider). Unless restaurant workers, particularly restaurant workers of color, gain power both in their workplaces and in society at large, companies will remain free to compensate workers poorly in unsafe, discriminatory conditions. Food service workers are demanding that we do better.
Many restaurants are short-staffed, claiming “nobody wants to work.”
Restaurant workers have been dissatisfied with working conditions since before the pandemic.
Inequalities within the food service industry particularly harm workers of color.