In the restaurant industry, the darker your skin, the more likely you will work in the “back of the house.” It’s a world in which your accent prevents you from getting server and bartender jobs, regardless of your qualifications. Unless, of course, you have a European accent. A study by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a workers rights group in Manhattan, highlights the pervasiveness of racial and ethnic biases in the industry. Hourly wage and demographic data from the Census Bureau shows that black and Latino workers are most often bussers, runners and kitchen help, and rarely higher-paid servers or bartenders.
Saru Jayaraman, executive director of ROC United, notes that racial segregation is one of the industry’s “most pressing, deep-seated problems.”
The number of lawsuits filed nationally against restaurants for race-based discrimination is large. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s compilation of significant “race/color” cases lists restaurants as a common culprit, although most cases are settled and not fully adjudicated.
In late 2014, a national fine-dining seafood restaurant settled a 2008 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suit that alleged “discrimination against African-American job applicants by refusing to hire them for front-of-the-house positions and by denying equal work assignments because of their race.” In 2007, EEOC records show, a “renowned French chef” from an upscale Manhattan restaurant settled a suit that alleged Latino and Bangladeshi workers were “refused promotions to the ‘front of the house’ such as captains, which instead went to Caucasian workers with less experience and seniority.”
Other major EEOC restaurant discrimination cases follow similar patterns: relegating workers of color to lesser-paying jobs, not assigning them to large parties “with greater resulting tips and income,” and, in one case, ordering all “African American employees to be strip-searched in response to a white cashier’s drawer turning up $100 short.”
Regardless of race, and despite the six-figure wages possible for servers in high end establishments, most workers in the industry only earn crumbs at their jobs. The restaurant industry is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the nation, employing more than 11 million workers. Unfortunately, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, restaurant work accounts for seven of the 10 lowest-paid jobs in the nation. And as bad as the pay is generally — with the country’s lowest-paid restaurant workers earning a median hourly wage of $8.85 — research by ROC United demonstrates that almost twice as many workers of color face poverty relative to white restaurant workers.
The situation for women of color is the worst. Recent fast-food worker strikes have been led by women, who make up two-thirds of that workforce. ROC United’s California research shows that in the category of “casual full-service” restaurants, women are also “channeled towards lower paying positions,” with women of color seeing “the largest impact of such segregation on their wages.” ROC United’s analysis of census data finds that in California restaurants as a whole women of color earn about 10 percent less per hour compared to white women, and only 71 percent of what white men earn.
As restaurant goers, the public can contribute to ending occupational segregation in the industry. Just as our dollars keep restaurants thriving, they can help fight for racial equity in restaurants. Patronize those with the best ethics, and if a particular favorite isn’t providing its workers with a fair chance at its best-paying jobs, talk to the manager, call it out on social media and add to your tip.
Christina Fletes, a student at the University of California at Berkeley Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School, is a former ROC United intern. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.