NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Workers from McDonald's, Burger King, Pizza Hut and others have announced a planned Thursday strike to protest and dramatize their poor wages -- but the other side of this story is that throughout the restaurant industry workers struggle with poor pay.
It’s not limited to fast food outlets, report multiple studies. Poverty just may be built into the culinary career track.
Poverty can be found even in white tablecloth, fine dining establishments.
Fact: you may be chowing on a $40 steak, washed down with an $18 martini, at a posh resort, but the busboy who cleans up after you may be earning minimum wage and the chef who cooked that steak may not be doing much better.
Fact: a new report from Washington, D.C. think tank Economic Policy Institute claimed that 43.1% of restaurant employees live in or near poverty.
EPI stressed that one in six restaurant workers in fact live below the poverty line.
Don’t think, either, that it’s only the very young who are impacted. The belief is widespread that the typical restaurant employee is new to the labor force, but research out of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United in New York showed that the average age of an employee at a fine dining restaurant - white tablecloth - is 32. In casual dining, it is 29.
The report noted: “Even in fast food establishments, the typical employee is 24 years old — not under 20 as is often believed.”
The median income in the restaurant business, including tips, is $10 per hour, per EPI. In other industries it is $18 an hour.
It gets worse. Research from the National Employment Law Project in New York found that restaurant worker wages have in fact been declining. In real dollars, waiters and waitresses saw their income drop 2.1% in real dollars from 2009 to 2012 (median hourly wage: $8.92).
For restaurant cooks, the news is worse. Their wages dropped 7.1% in real dollars from 2009 to 2012, per NELP. On average they, earned about $10.59 per hour.
Those low wages are found at places with big menu prices, too, not just greasy spoons and fast food factories. The executive chef at a swank Vermont resort - where the cheapest room that could be found in a recent search was $250 per night - told Mainstreet that her pay was $15 per hour.
“I can't pay the rent on that here in Vermont,” she lamented.
Low pay is made lower still by common predatory employment practices.
Restaurant workers often are asked to work “off the clock,” per industry sources, meaning they may not be paid for many hours they in fact are on premises. There also is a widespread epidemic of owners' grabbing employee tips.
Two years ago celebrity chef Mario Batali - who operates the wildly successful Babbo and Del Posto restaurants in Manhattan as well as eateries in Las Vegas and Los Angeles -- entered into a $5.25 million settlement to resolve employee complaints about tip stealing. That settlement involved only the Manhattan restaurants.
You want benefits? Hah. Only 14.4% of non-unionized restaurant workers even receive health insurance, per EPI.
Noted ROCU: “Across all segments of the industry, benefits levels are also quite low. In the fast food and moderately priced segments, less than 20% of employers offer any level of paid sick leave or paid time-off. To boot, only about one-third offer paid vacations or employer subsidized health insurance. In casual fine dining and fine dining restaurants, which employ fewer workers than other segments, employers invest more in human resource practices. Even for these workers, however, less than 30% of employers offer any type of paid sick leave or paid time-off and just over 50% in fine dining (and under 40% in casual fine dining) offer paid vacation or employer subsidized health insurance.”
The poverty builds on itself. A longtime restaurant worker said this: “After 30 years I will only get $375 a month in Social Security when I retire because of the wage I was getting. So yes, between learning to live on tips only and trying to find a way to squirrel a few dollars away for a rainy day, most food service workers are near the lower end of the pay scale.”
--Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet