It’s not always pretty how the sausage, salad and salmon get made. Low-pay and difficult working conditions are commonplace in the restaurant industry. Many workers are part-timers, and few have benefits. Moreover, workers’ tips are sometimes stolen by management, and wages can go unpaid. These problems are particularly acute for immigrants, who are over-represented in the restaurant industry, and often have little recourse. Women, who comprise over half of industry workers, must further contend with sexual harassment, which is rampant in food-service businesses.
The Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United has been active since 2001 in addressing the challenges facing restaurant industry workers. Recently, it highlighted the long-term costs of sexual harassment in a study it conducted in collaboration with UC Berkeley. On May 8, it held a national press call with actor Sarah Jessica Parker, ROC United co-founder Saru Jayaraman, Oregon House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, and current and former restaurant workers, to publicize the study’s initial findings.
The Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) was founded in New York in the wake of the 9-11 attacks to help restaurant workers displaced from their jobs. In 2008, it became a national organization advocating for restaurant workers wages and rights. ROC United now has nearly 30,000 worker-members, more than 500 restaurant employer members, and several thousand consumer members nationwide. It has won 15 worker-led campaigns, and recovered $10 million in stolen tips and wages. Co-founder Jayaram is the author of the 2016 book Forked: A New Standard for American Dining, which rates restaurants not on the quality of their beef, but on the wages, working conditions and opportunities they provide workers.
That sexual harassment is prevalent in the restaurant industry is no surprise, but the ROC United/UC Berkeley study goes beyond this fact to address how the experience of being harassed affects young women’s lifelong tolerance for harassment, even in other industries. The study combines qualitative data and quantitative analysis of surveys of several hundred women who worked in the restaurant industry when they were young. Current food-service workers, as well as women in different sectors—including Hollywood, media, politics, and philanthropy—were interviewed for this initial portion of a longer study.
According to ROC United, one in two Americans will work in the restaurant industry in their lifetime. The organization’s research reveals that almost 90 percent of women in the industry experience harassment from customers, managers, and coworkers. ROC United states, “For many women who work in restaurants as their first job, these experiences of sexual harassment shape the rest of their working lives. They learn early that sexual harassment is an unfortunate condition of work that must be tolerated, and even encouraged, in order to earn enough wages through tips.”
The ROC United effort against sexual harassment is linked to the “One Fair Wage” campaign, which would eliminate the lower wage for tipped workers. One Fair Wage represents a concrete policy solution to blunt the prevalence of restaurant-industry harassment. According to ROC United, “Women workers who rely on tips to make ends meet are forced to tolerate inappropriate customer behavior to ensure they take home enough income to feed their families. One Fair Wage ensures that women workers no longer have to solely rely on customer tips to make a living wage.”
In addition to the sexual harassment study and its accompanying press call, in February, ROC United held #NotOntheMenu rallies in Washington D.C., New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, the Bay Area, Detroit and New Orleans to demand an end to sexual harassment in the restaurant industry.
ROC United has received support from a number of granting bodies, including the San Francisco-based, James Irvine Foundation. As part of its Fair Work initiative designed to boost the fortunes of California’s lowest income workers (those making less than $12.50 hourly), in 2016 Irvine provided ROC United a three-year $1.4 million grant. The funds are being used, “… to support low-wage restaurant workers in California by enhancing the occupational skills, leadership development, and civic participation opportunities of workers while engaging employers, policymakers, and consumers to raise industry standards.”
Other funders have included Foundation for a Just Society, which provided $100,000 to ROC of New Orleans, “to support ROC-NOLA’s work to build power and voice for women and LGBTQI restaurant workers in New Orleans’ restaurant industry.” Other prominent supporters of ROC United include the Ford Foundation, which hosted a 2016 event in support of ROC United founder Saru Jayaraman’s book Forked. The event featured a slew of famous chefs and restauranteurs, many of whom have come around to the idea that treating restaurant workers fairly is not just the right thing to do, but it can be good for business as well.