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. This is true even in California where the pay and benefits for restaurant workers are better than in most other places.
A recent study by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a workers rights group headquartered in New York, highlights the pervasiveness of racial and ethnic biases in the restaurant 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. In addition, in the California cities studied, whites make up close to 80% of workers in fine dining restaurants, where servers may earn up to $150,000 a year in wages and tips.
Saru Jayaraman, executive director of ROC United, notes that racial segregation is one of the restaurant industry's “most pressing, deep-seated problems.”
The number of lawsuits filed nationally against restaurants for race-based discrimination is extensive. 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, McCormick & Schmick's, a 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 that 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.”
In 2006, the EEOC resolved a case with the owners of a California fast food restaurant after the restaurant owner allegedly refused to give a 16-year-old a job application because the owner thought her to be black. Moments later the teenager's white friend was “immediately given an application on request.”
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 restaurant 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 ten 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% less per hour compared to white women, and only 71% 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. ROC United maintains a list in the form of an app that identifies restaurants that treat their workers right. 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, or if it isn't paying them enough to put food on their tables as well as yours, talk to the manager, call it out on social media and add to your tip.
Christina Fletes is a concurrent degree student at UC Berkeley Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School. She is a former ROC United intern.