Greater Greater Washington

Encourage better conditions for restaurant workers

Dining out in the DC area is an occasional practice for many and an everyday indulgence for some. The restaurant industry is an ever-changing and fast growing industry not only across the nation, but here in DC. Unfortunately it is also an industry plagued with many bad jobs and only a few good ones.


Photo by moyrj on Flickr.

There are almost 2,000 eating and drinking establishments in Washington DC alone and over 10,000 in Maryland and over 13,000 in Virginia.

Restaurants and other eating/drinking establishments are also a driving force for the local economy. It is estimated that in 2010, the industry will generate at least 2.4 billion in sales in DC, $8.7 billion in sales in Maryland, and over $11 billion in Virginia. The industry employees over 36,000 people in DC, 226,900 in Maryland and almost 331,000 people in Virginia.

However, the restaurant industry is plagued by low wages, poor working conditions, and inadequate benefits. The average annual salary for restaurant employees in 2009 was $22,982 in DC, $20,522 in Arlington County, and $18,949 in Montgomery County. These salaries are just below the poverty line for a family of four.

A major issue confronting restaurant workers revolves around benefits, especially those relating to employee health. Unlike many workers in the United States, restaurant workers often do not receive paid sick leave.

Because restaurant wages are often so low, the decision for a worker that she is too sick to work on a particular day could mean being unable to pay bills or care for her family. Restaurant workers who lack paid sick leave contribute to public health problem since they sometimes come to work sick.

In 2008 Washington, D.C. passed the Accrued Sick and Safe Leave Act, which requires employers to provide paid sick leave for workers. However, in the give-and-take negotiations to secure that law, restaurant owners won major concessions, including provisions that exempt tipped waitstaff and bartenders from coverage under the law.

Even for restaurant workers who do fall under the bill's provisions, many remain unaware of the new regulations. The DC government has taken the first steps of creating necessary regulations and adding the violation of paid sick leave provisions to forms workers can use to register official complaints against their employers, but education for workers about their new rights, which is critically important, has been slow.

The Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) is working to establish baseline standards for restaurant-industry workers, reward restaurants and their owners when they pay and treat their workers well, and call out those who violate workers' legal rights.

As restaurant goers, there are a couple simple things we can do to help support restaurant workers. First, leave your tip in cash. Since credit card tips must be processed, it can take longer for waiters to actually receive their wages, while some never receive their credit card tips at all. Restaurant employees and advocates are working to change tip processing, but for the time being the best way to ensure that your tips reach workers is to leave cash.

Second, dine out ethically. Support workers by eating at restaurants with fair labor practices. On Saturday, November 13th, ROC is encouraging consumers to dine at, or "Carrotmob," Teaism because of their support of workers rights. Teaism currently provides 5-7 sick days to all of their workers.

The restaurant industry provides and will continue to provide an important contribution to the region's economy. The industry is projected to grow by 12 percent in DC, and around 8 percent in both Maryland and Virginia by 2020.

The DC area restaurant industry can either take the high road by providing fair wages, access to health benefits, and advancement in the industry. Or, take the low road by continuing to create low-wage jobs with few benefits and poor working conditions.

As consumers we can encourage the industry and policy makers to support workers, thus not only benefiting restaurant employees but also the overall quality of the food we eat.

Lynda Laughlin is a family demographer at the U.S. Census Bureau. She holds a PhD in sociology and enjoys reading, writing, and researching issues related to families and communities, urban economics, and urban development. Lynda lives in Mt. Pleasant. Views expressed here are strictly her own. 

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I don't get how this practice has been allowed to continue for so long nationwide.

Although cultural change is %*$&ing hard, we really need to move to a European-style system of tipping. Pay the waitstaff fairly, and don't expect more than a 5% tip.

by andrew on Nov 9, 2010 1:56 pm • linkreport

The Restaurant Opportunities Center United just completed a national study of restaurants workers and found that 87% of restaurant workers reported not receiving paid sick days and that 63% of restaurant workers reported cooking and serving food while sick! As we go into the flu season we should be on high alert that our restaurant workers are not given paid sick days to recuperate and not infect consumers because they cannot afford to.

(http://www.rocunited.org/news/20100927-serving-while-sick-report-reveals-need-paid-sick-days-health-insurance-restaurant-indu)

by bonnie on Nov 9, 2010 2:13 pm • linkreport

I'm with Andrew. The current system of waitstaff income being determined by tipping by customers is really broken. What other industry allows the customer to determine a workers salary arbitrarily? It would be great to see forward-thinking restaurants make a point of always charging a fixed gratuity and paying their employees properly.

by dand on Nov 9, 2010 3:51 pm • linkreport

Those average salary numbers are basically meaningless, because so many employees depend on tips for nearly everything they earn. It would be much more edifying to either include tips (which is hard to do, because lots of it is undeclared), or exclude tipped employees.

by jcm on Nov 9, 2010 4:15 pm • linkreport

The average salary estimates also includes restaurant workers who often do not receive tips, such as kitchen staff (dish washer, bus boy, etc.). It can take years to advance to a waitstaff position with tips.

by Lynda on Nov 9, 2010 4:24 pm • linkreport

"Leave your tips in cash" because it takes longer to get the processed??? LOL. Yeah, that is exactly why you should leave it in cash. It has nothing to do with tax reporting, does it?

by beatbox on Nov 9, 2010 4:35 pm • linkreport

$23,000 REPORTED salary is probably more like 28,000 when you take into account the unreported income. That doesn't sound so bad to me.

by blogo on Nov 9, 2010 4:41 pm • linkreport

"Second, dine out ethically." This is a nice idea, but consumers don't seem to have any tools at our disposal to put it into practice. Going to Teaism on a specific day with a large group of people to support their policies would make me feel good about myself (and might make Teaism feel good about their business practices), but probably wouldn't accomplish anything more than that. Is there any other resource to find out whether the workers at restaurants I enjoy are paid fairly and given adequate benefits?

by Leslie on Nov 9, 2010 4:52 pm • linkreport

As restaurant goers, there are a couple simple things we can do to help support restaurant workers. First, leave your tip in cash. Since credit card tips must be processed, it can take longer for waiters to actually receive their wages, while some never receive their credit card tips at all. Restaurant employees and advocates are working to change tip processing, but for the time being the best way to ensure that your tips reach workers is to leave cash.

I completely disagree. I've had family and friends work as waitstaff and managers over the years, and they've told me that all that paying in cash does is encourage fraud. Cash means that unethical waitstaff can cheat the busboys out of their day's pay. Cash means that unethical assistants can slip change from the till. And cash means that very few people report their taxes honestly. Both honest employees and the general public would be much better off if restaurants paid their staff minimum wage, and deducted the payroll as a business expense, like normal businesses do.

by tom veil on Nov 9, 2010 5:01 pm • linkreport

I worked as a busboy at a restaurant in Adams Morgan....Definitely need to agree with tom veil on this one. After a year of bussing, I got bumped up to food running and, eventually, waiting tables. I was quick to discover that waitstaff routinely understated what they made in tips, so that they could tip less out to busboys and the bar. I didn't follow suit, so some busboys and barbacks complained to management about the practices. I got fired. There needs to be a fundamental rethinking of compensation in restaurants.

by anonymous on Nov 9, 2010 7:44 pm • linkreport

For the restaurant numbers in Va. and Md. (13,000 and 11,000) respectively is that just the metro dc areas. It seems as if DC has 2,000 restaurants and such then Northern Va. having 13,000 makes sense but it seems incredibly low if its the whole state.

by Canaan on Nov 9, 2010 9:17 pm • linkreport

@Canaan - the numbers for VA and MD are by state. If you go to http://www.restaurant.org/research/state/ you can get a fact sheet by state. Most restaurants are located in more populated areas, thus there are fewer in the rural areas of VA and MD. Northern VA has about the same number of establishments as DC.

by Lynda on Nov 9, 2010 9:44 pm • linkreport

It's just unfortunate that if you dig a little bit and read the fine print, the 63% this and 87% that are not based on sound methodology. Based on a non-random sample, we really have no idea to what extent this is a problem. It very well may be a big problem, but this ROC-United report is not the evidence.

by StatsProf on Nov 9, 2010 10:16 pm • linkreport

There are lots of things the government might do to improve restaurant working conditions. All they really *need* to do is enforce the minimum wage and guarantee overly generous sick leave benefits. The current system of cash tipping can survive that, at a lower rate with less tax/tip fraud.

Whether the minimum wage should be as low as it is... that's another discussion.

by Squalish on Nov 10, 2010 8:28 am • linkreport

I would have no problem with eliminating tipping, increasing the cost of dining out 15-20% to compensate servers, and going directly to the manager to complain about bad servers.

Unfortunately, I think I'm in the minority.

by monkeyrotica on Nov 10, 2010 8:58 am • linkreport

I'm going to probably ignite a bonfire here, so I'll start by saying that I'm not going to subscribe to replies for sake of avoiding getting myself worked into an internet argument... internet arguments rarely solve anything in the first place; even less so when dealing with one's more fundamental beliefs. I'm not going to change anyone else's mind, and I'd wager others won't be able to change mine.

Essentially: I disagree with this Lynda's opinion. First I'll frame this stance by saying that I was raised in PA Dutch Country, which consists of an amusing mixture of generally conservative people that tend to support a number of liberal causes... but focusing on this subject it tends to be a bit more of a conservative take: the PA Dutch culture places a strong emphasis on personal initiative & responsibility.

With that in mind, my take on the restaurant business is that if the practices at that restaurant don't work for you: then don't work there. Of course, any illegal activities should certainly be called out, but so long as everything is operating within the law: employees should know quite well what their income is going to be like.

There's no good & tactful way to say this, but the culture I was brought up in has a mindset that if you choose to drop out of high school, then you choose to accept the consequences. If you choose to not go to college or learn a vocation, you choose to accept the consequences. And if your educational path doesn't pan out, you have the choice to pursue a new one. Several of my coworkers started in other industries, but their economies dried up and they came to their current field.

I admit that my mindset was formed in an area of small towns and small cities; perhaps it doesn't scale into a much larger city such as DC and its suburbs. All my years working such jobs was back in Pennsylvania; not in DC.

And I do come from a rather privledged background, so I can't deny that I may have a sort of "windshield perspective" as applied to this situation... I got college for free so long as I did well, but I had to pay for food, my car, rent (even in high school whiel I was living at home), and any other expenses. Where I grew up is also far from being a privledged area- it's a land full of oft-stereotyped Amish and people driving rusted Mustangs or dilapidated pickup trucks; I worked shoulder to shoulder with them in these jobs right up until college graduation.

If you ever want to try some even more lousy jobs: farm labor is brutal and being a commercial janitor is far from pleasant. While the latter paid more than minimum wage (which in my opinion, still didn't justify some of the gifts people left behind), with the former I only got to share in whatever money was made at the produce stand... on rainy days that wouldn't be much.

With the economy as it is: I can agree that simply changing jobs may not be so simple; nor might reeducation to enter a new industry; nor might there be time or money to pursue even a GED. To that end, where I see people utterly trapped and abused: I certainly have a degree of empathy (social support is another PA Dutch hallmark); but I'd hesitate to use the characteristics of the current recession as justification to pursue long-term policies.

So opposing viewpoint has been offered- rant if you like; but everything above it formed by the culture I spent 20 years growing up within, so while I respect and understand everyone else's opinion, I hope you at least take heed there are other viewpoints out there and it's not necessarily a simple "high road" or "low road" issue.

Cheers!

by Bossi on Nov 10, 2010 11:59 am • linkreport

In my experience, the group of people MOST opposed to receiving higher wages with lower tips or going to a European style of tipping is waiters themselves. They would generally rather take a gamble on a big tip than receive 15% every time.

I think that waiters and bar staff work really hard and deserve to be tipped well and treated with fairness and respect by employers and customers. But, it's hard to have too much sympathy for FOH staff, who have voluntarily traded a consistent but lower rate for the possibility of making lots more $$. I am much more concerned about non-tipped employees. Usually the veterans of any restaurant staff, these BOH employees are the ones working longer hours, making minimum wage or not much more and never getting a bonus or raise.

by Abby on Nov 10, 2010 12:20 pm • linkreport

@Bossi -- it's too bad you didn't subscribe to replies because I suspect you'll get more interesting replies than flame wars. Anyways, I'm curious how you feel about a minimum wage in any situation. Seems like by your logic, workers can always change jobs and get educated, so there's no need for government to guarantee a minimum wage or other work conditions in any occupation. Personally I think having these minimums not only helps those workers, but also the people with better paying jobs because of the positive effects on society as a whole.

by dand on Nov 10, 2010 12:27 pm • linkreport

@monkeyrotica +1 (but why such a sane, serious comment??)

by Ward 1 Guy on Nov 10, 2010 12:43 pm • linkreport

The idea of "paid sick leave" is an anachronism in human resource management. I think the issue is paid leave.

One policy is to allow workers to accumulate paid leave as they work, say 1 paid leave day for every 20 days worked, which they can bank and use as they need for being sick or going fishing or whatever, as long as the employer has enough advance notice and the workflow is not disrupted.

Another policy is to pay workers 5% more and let them take an unpaid day off when they need it (e.g. could be for being sick, but no need to prove or fake illness). The worker should be indifferent between these policies.

Where the system breaks down is that the restaurant doesn't pay its employees directly if you have a tipping system. We should all use our credit cards so tips can be recorded and processed efficiently, resulting in the approximation of a normal compensation system.

by Ward 1 Guy on Nov 10, 2010 12:53 pm • linkreport

BTW, ethical dining to me means staying away from the endangered animals on the menu and eating sustainable stuff, not wasting food on the plate.

If you care so much about restaurant workers, then be nice to them and give them big tips. I mean, come on, the form of the tip (cash/credit) probably matters less than the amount of the tip!

by Ward 1 Guy on Nov 10, 2010 12:55 pm • linkreport

You are all forgetting the impact of tipping on service. It does make a difference.

20 years ago there was no real tipping in London and the service was consistently terrible. Now, it is getting more in line with US tipping and I've noticed a definite improvement.

by beatbox on Nov 10, 2010 1:28 pm • linkreport

It's worth noting that paid sick days will also reduce employee turnover and being sick on the job. Employers may see a net economic benefit, not a cost, from paid sick days:

http://www.iwpr.org/pdf/B289CT.pdf

by Weiwen on Nov 10, 2010 3:53 pm • linkreport

I'd like to see Lynda Laughlin, who favors benefits for restaurant workers at the expense of customers (and tax fraud by restaurant workers at the expense of the general public) duke it out mano a mano with Erik Weber, who on the same blog on the same day opposes benefits for taxi drivers at the expense of customers.

by David desJardins on Nov 10, 2010 8:30 pm • linkreport

Cash means that unethical waitstaff can cheat the busboys out of their day's pay.

i worked in restaurants for years, as has seemingly everyone i've ever known - from busboys to waiters, bartenders, chefs, managers. i don't remember ever hearing of this type of skulduggery. my experience was pretty much exactly what you'd expect -- everyone got paid what they were supposed to. i'm sure there are exceptions just like anything else, but by and large, the system just seemed to work.

so I'll start by saying that I'm not going to subscribe to replies for sake of avoiding getting myself worked into an internet argument...

hit and run. nice.

And I do come from a rather privileged background,

which is why you're so comfortable with hitting and running -- rich people don't live like everyone else - you don't have to pay for your mistakes - you don't have to face the consequences of your actions - there's always someone, or a trust fund, to bail you out. Cue the Republican "I worked hard for my money!" rant -- because we all know that dishwashers and busboys don't work hard for their money.

So opposing viewpoint has been offered- rant if you like; but everything above it formed by the culture I spent 20 years growing up within, so while I respect and understand everyone else's opinion, I hope you at least take heed there are other viewpoints out there and it's not necessarily a simple "high road" or "low road" issue.

let me try to translate that:

"i have an opposing viewpoint. it's a legitimate point of view because it was formed over 20 years. by me. never mind that it is devoid of humanity. and did you know there was another point of view out there besides your own? did you? and did i mention i'm not going to read what you wrote? because i can't waste my beautiful mind on something like that."

think that about covers it.

20 years ago there was no real tipping in London and the service was consistently terrible. Now, it is getting more in line with US tipping and I've noticed a definite improvement.

i am curious about that. i've gotten terrible service in Yurp (Britain, France), but I've also gotten terrible service in America, too, soo...?? i guess next time i go, i'll pay more attention. with the airlines having so much fun with their anal probes, though, don't expect i'll be flying much anytime soon.

It's worth noting that paid sick days will also reduce employee turnover and being sick on the job.

It's worth noting that new/more/better bike lanes (a 'better condition' for restaurant workers in itself) makes biking to work possible, which results in fewer sick days. :) Not to mention, workers get to save their money instead of spending it on a lousy bus ride.

who favors benefits for restaurant workers at the expense of customers

same argument used out here in SF to try to kill the restaurant workers health insurance program. i think the argument goes, 'do not make employers help pay for health insurance for their employees because then poor workers from Google, Adobe, and Genentech, who eat out every day, will no longer be able to eat out every day, or at least not twice a day every day, and then they might starve to death.' or something like that.

while in DC, i volunteered a couple of times at the DC EJC - part of what they do is help exploited workers get some relief -- whether they're being sexually harassed, or just haven't been paid in a couple/few months, whatever -- the EJC is able to help out at least a little bit. u wanna talk about some skulduggery - whew - the level of criminality and cruelty among the business class - pretty shocking even if you've seen/read a lot.

the Black Star BrewPub Co-op in Austin, TX pays a living wage, and does not accept tips.

i have subscribed to comments, so you can tell me i'm wrong, and i will read it. i may even allow my beautiful mind to correct you. ;-)

by Peter Smith on Nov 11, 2010 3:33 am • linkreport

same argument used out here in SF to try to kill the restaurant workers health insurance program. i think the argument goes, 'do not make employers help pay for health insurance for their employees because then poor workers from Google, Adobe, and Genentech, who eat out every day, will no longer be able to eat out every day, or at least not twice a day every day, and then they might starve to death.' or something like that.

I think you're quoting me, so I'll just reply to this part. I didn't take any point of view on whether restaurant workers should get better or worse benefits (although I do have a general inclination against encouraging tax fraud). I just thought it was interesting that two such diametrically opposed positions were posted on the same blog on the same day, one arguing in favor of restaurant workers regardless of the effect on customers and the other arguing against taxi drivers because of the effect on customers. Of course, those two postings were written by two different people and the blog is entirely justified in having multiple contributors who don't agree on everything. I just thought it ironic.

by David desJardins on Nov 11, 2010 3:44 am • linkreport

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