Restaurant Workers Rights

Table of Contents

Restaurant Workers Stats
Tipped Sub-Minimum Wage (2-Tier Wage System)
The Other NRA: National Restaurant Association
Restaurant Rights Campaigns
Current Federal Protections

Restaurant Workers Stats

Saru Jayaraman Ted Talk, “Behind the Kitchen Door”

Restaurant Industry

  • 11 million food workers
  • One of the largest and fastest growing industry in the US.  In 2017 the restaurant industry grew faster than health care, construction, or manufacturing.
  • Employees nearly one in 10 Americans

Poverty Wages

  • The tipped minimum has been stuck at $2.13 ever since 1996
  • 40 Percent of restaurant workers live in poverty
  • Restaurant workers
    • occupy 7 out of 10 of the lowest-paid occupations (Bureau of Labor)
      • Farmworkers are also in the 10 lowest paid list
    • 3 times more likely to fall below poverty line than any other worker
    • use food stamps at twice the rate of the U.S. workforce

Lack of Benefits

  • Almost 9 out of 10 restaurant workers lack paid sick days (87.7 percent) and health insurance from their employer (89.7 percent)
  • 90 percent of restaurant workers don’t have paid sick days, and “two-thirds report cooking, preparing and serving food while sick.”


  • People of Color Are Paid 56 Percent Less Than White Workers
    • Generally, across front-of-the-house jobs, white male workers are paid more on average than other workers. In California, they make $15.06 per hour on average, compared to $12.85 for non-white males, $11.56 for white women and $10.21 for non-white women.
  • Women and workers of color are often pushed into the lowest-paying jobs in the food service industry, while white male food industry workers are often channeled toward the highest-pay bartender and server jobs in fine-dining establishments
    • 53% of those who work in back-of-the-house positions are people of color, in front-of-the-house fine-dining jobs, that number plummets to 22%.
    • In fine dining restaurants, 81% of management is white, often male.
  • For more stats check out “ROC: Ending Jim Crow in America’s Restaurants: Racial and Gender Occupational Segregation in the Restaurant Industry”


  • 80% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment
    • Higher rates of harassment at tipped sub-minimum wage restaurants
    • Must relay on customer, not employer, for their income

Washington Post: Rape in the storage room. Groping at the bar. Why is the restaurant industry so terrible for women?

“…In 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 5,431 complaints of sexual harassment from women. Of the 2,036 claims that listed an industry, 12.5 percent came from the hotel and food industry, more than any other category, according to the National Women’s Law Center. The Restaurant Opportunities Center United, which advocates for higher wages, found in a 2014 study that two-thirds of female restaurant workers were sexually harassed by restaurant management, 80 percent by their co-workers and 78 percent by customers. A third of women reported that unwanted touching was routine, the survey found.

But those numbers may not provide the full picture. Harassment is so routine that many restaurant employees say they do not consider sexual comments or touching to be worth reporting…

…Nearly a quarter of restaurant employees are foreign-born vs. 19 percent for the overall economy, according to the National Restaurant Association. And many are undocumented: Ten percent of the workforce in “eating and drinking places” in 2014 lacked U.S. work authorization, according to the Pew Research Center. Fear of deportation may make undocumented immigrant restaurant workers who are abused less likely to report that abuse to authorities.”

The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United “Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry”

“Tipped workers occupy a uniquely vulnerable position in our nation’s employment landscape. Federal law allows for pay discrimination between tipped and non-tipped workers, permitting employers to pay tipped workers a sub-minimum wage of $2.13 per hour. as a result, tipped restaurant workers are expected to collect the remainder of their wages from customers’ tips, creating an environment in which a majority female workforce must please and curry favor with customers to earn a living. depending on customers’ tips for wages discourages workers who might otherwise stand up for their rights and report unwanted sexual behaviors.

Since women restaurant workers living off tips are forced to rely on customers for their income rather than their employer, these workers must often tolerate inappropriate behavior from customers, coworkers, and management. This dynamic contributes to the restaurant industry’s status as the single largest source of sexual harassment claims in the u.s. While seven percent of american women work in the restaurant industry, more than a third (an eye-opening 37%) of all sexual harassment claims to the equal employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) come from the restaurant industry. Even these high levels of complaints to the EEOC may underreport the industry’s rate of sexual harassment. Restaurant workers in focus groups gathered through this study noted that sexual harassment is “kitchen talk,” a “normalized” part of the work environment and that many restaurant workers are reluctant to publicly acknowledge their experiences with sexual harassment.”

Tipped Sub-Minimum Wage (2-Tier Wage System)

  • 43 states use a tipped sub-minimum wage
    • History is exploitative
    • First used in US for Freed slaves hired without pay by restaurants and Pullman rail operators
    • Ban for awhile until first minimum-wage law in 1938 allowed states to set a lower wage for tipped workers
    • In 1966 Congress adopts a federal tipped minimum wage that increased in tandem at 50% with the regular minimum wage
    • In 1996, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, head of the National Restaurant Association (NRA), convinced Congress to decouple the two wages.
      • The tipped minimum has been stuck at $2.13 ever since.
  • 20 states use the federal tipped sub-minimum wage of $2.13
  • 22 states are between $2.13-$5.00, including DC ($3.33)
  • National median wage including tips is around $9 an hour

Eliminating the 2 Tier Wage System by Guarantee Minimum Wage for Restaurant Workers

  • 7 states guarantee a equal single minimum wage to all workers, before tips
  • Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington

ROC: Impact of Raising the Subminimum Wage on Restaurant Sales and Employment

“New research examining the strength of restaurant industries in states without a subminimum wage reveal that abolishing the tipped minimum wage is good for business and workers.

Key findings include:

● Above-average employment growth occurs in the seven states that have already abolished the subminimum wage (Alaska, Montana, Nevada, Minnesota, California, Oregon, and Washington).

● Per capita restaurant sales increase as the tipped minimum wage increases. Growth in tipped restaurant worker employment as a percentage of total state employment tends to be higher in the states that pay tipped workers above $5 per hour, and is higher still in states that have abolished the subminimum wage.

● Eliminating subminimum wage does not decrease employment. In fact, the restaurant industry projects employment growth over the next decade of 10.5% in the seven states without a tipped subminimum wage, compared to 9.1% in states with a subminimum wage.

● Since 2009, tipped restaurant workers have grown in importance as a percentage of total employed workers in $2.13 states, states where tipped worker wages are higher than $5.00, and states without subminimum wage—but growth of tipped restaurant workers as a percentage of total employment is highest in states without subminimum wage.

Find FACT SHEET: The Impact of Raising the Subminimum Wage on Restaurant Sales and Employment below or download here.

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Adam Ruins Everything – Why Tipping Should Be Banned

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The Other NRA: National Restaurant Association

Saloon: The other NRA: How the National Restaurant Association ensures poverty wages

Fast-food workers feed their families on a pittance while the big corporations resist fair pay and sick leave

“While thousands of fast-food workers were preparing to walk off their jobs earlier this summer to seek raises to $15 an hour, the industry’s corporate lobbyist, the National Restaurant Association, was celebrating a string of political victories blocking state minimum wage increases and preempting local sick day laws.

In June, the NRA boasted that its lobbyists had stopped minimum wage increases in 27 out of 29 states in 2013. In Connecticut, which increased its state minimum wage, a raise in the base pay for tipped workers such as waitresses and bartenders vanished in the final bill. A similar scenario unfolded in New York State: It increased its minimum wage, but the NRA’s last-minute lobbying derailed raising the pre-tip wage at restaurants and bars. The deals came despite polls showing 80 percent support for raising the minimum wage.

The NRA’s lobbying didn’t stop there. It also told members that it blocked a dozen states this year from passing laws that would require earned paid sick leave, which is what New York City and Portland, Oregon adopted. Meanwhile, it boasted that six states, including Florida, passed NRA-backed laws that preemptively ban localities from granting earned and paid employee sick time…

…Most Americans are unaware that millions of people who work in the industry—especially the 2.5 million fast-food preparers and servers who earn an average of $8.74 an hour, according to federal labor statistics—are not just teens in their first job, but adults with families to support. They may not know there’s a separate minimum wage for tipped workers, $2.13 an hour, that hasn’t changed in 22 years—although 32 states have raised it slightly. They may not realize that they, as the restaurant-going public, subsidize owners via cash tips, even as the NRA routinely tells legislators its industry cannot afford to pay better wages or basic benefits.

Most Americans don’t know that restaurant salaries are so low that the industry’s 12.2 million workers use food stamps at twice the rate of the U.S. workforce, and are three times as likely to be below the poverty line. Or that women earn less than men in similar jobs. Or that restaurants are among the biggest low-wage employers of people of color. Or that virtually every chain—except for In and Out, according to ROC—don’t want to pay living wages and benefits or offer real opportunities for advancement.

Most tellingly, almost every national chain—from fast-food outfits such as Yum! Brands Inc. (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC) and McDonald’s to full-service dining such as Darden Restaurants Inc. (Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Capital Grille)—have reported higher revenues, profits, margins and cash holdings to Wall Street analysts despite the recession, according to the National Employment Law Project. Giants like McDonalds had 7.8 percent revenue growth over the past decade, according to, a financial reporting site. Yum had 10-year revenues of 8.7 percent, and Darden’s 10-year revenues grew 9.1 percent.

But last winter, as the NRA was fighting minimum wage increases and paid sick leave, it was telling lawmakers that the industry could not afford to pay employees more. Yet this August, the NRA’s newsletter was predicting another profitable year, where revenues would be up 4 percent compared to 2012. “Restaurant and foodservice sales are expected to reach a record high of $660.5 billion this year,” another 2013 revenue forecast on its website said.

“The NRA is the worst employer lobby in the U.S.,” Jayaraman said, speaking about its lobbying and PR operation that pretends it is not an industry dominated by Fortune 500 companies, but instead a rickety mom-and-pop operation teetering on the brink of ruin. “The [earnings] data does not bear any resemblance to what they say is true.”

There are many reasons why America’s restaurant industry, which employs nearly one in 10 Americans, gets away with underpaying its workers and blocking laws that would benefit employees. These reasons include the industry’s longtime low-wage business mode; its longstanding fear-based lobbying that any wage or benefit increase would kill jobs; and a sophisticated political operation that nurtures ties to both parties, encouraging lawmakers to adopt anti-worker laws…

Exploitative Roots, Exploitative Lobbying

The business model—where almost everyone except for top management earns an average of slightly more than $11 per hour—is premised on paying workers the lowest legal salary and has not changed in decades. As the New Yorker’s James Surowiecki recently explained, many of today’s largest service-sector companies, particularly restaurants and big-box retailers, were founded decades ago and sought to hire young people and housewives as low-wage, part-time employees, to give them work experience and spending money. “The reason this has become a big political issue is not that the jobs have changed; it’s that the people doing the jobs have.”

This summer’s fast food walk-outs—which will continue this fall—are part of acampaign to challenge and change that status quo, particularly as the media is discovering that the largely non-unionized restaurant workforce is filled with people with families. One consequence of the Great Recession is that millions of middle-class jobs have been replaced by lower-paying service jobs—food sector jobs that are now filled by adults with children, and jobs that offer little opportunity for advancement.

“On what I’m earning right now you have to choose between paying your rent and eating the next day,” Christopher Drumgold, a 32-year-old father of two from Detroit who earns $7.40 an hour after a year at McDonald’s, told reporters during July’s fast-food worker walk-out. “Fifteen dollars an hour would be great. We’d be able to pay our living costs.”

This kind of working-class struggle prompted President Obama to call for raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9 in his 2013 State of the Union speech. Some Democrats in Congress quickly responded by going higher, proposing it be raised to $10.10, and that the minimum cash wage for tipped workers be 70 percent of the federal (or higher state) minimum wage.

While polls consistently find that 80 percent of Americans, including majorities of Republicans and people earning more than $100,000 a year, support a $10.10 wage, the industry’s national and state-level lobbyists went to work to kill any increase at the state or federal levels. And if that didn’t work, they sought exemptions for tipped workers in states where the increase was seen as passing.

What unfolded in New York, which raised its minimum wage but not for tipped restaurant workers, and in Maryland, where the NRA stopped a minimum wage increase in a legislative committee, shows just how the NRA wields its power and influence.

“The NRA is a very conservative organization… my values are so different,” said Saginaw, who has been in the restaurant business for 31 years and was a former member. “They certainly weren’t representing my interests. They talk the small business owner game a lot but their lobbying efforts are dictated by the large corporate chains. I’m a small businessman.”

New York State: A Cautionary Tale

Many Americans are not aware that there is more than one minimum wage. There’s the federal wage for non-tipped workers, which is $7.25 an hour or $15,080 a year and took effect in July 2009. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have raised that rate. A few states, such as New Mexico and California, allow jurisdictions to set locally higher minimums.

Then there’s the tipped wage, for jobs where the public tips workers. The federal tip wage, which is $2.13 an hour, was last raised in 1991. Thirty-two states have raised it slightly. Employers are supposed to pay the difference between that base and other state or federal minimum. But, as ROC United said, that doesn’t always happen. And then there are other minimum wages for immigrants, minors and people with disablities.

In New York, the minimum wage increase in 2013 fell prey to partisan games. “It could be seen as good intentions gone awry,” said Frank Sobrino, press secretary for New York State Democratic Sen. Jose Peralta, explaining what happened as his state legislature raised the state’s minimum wage this year from $7.25 an hour to $9 an hour by 2016.

New York’s Senate is controlled by an odd majority of Republicans and so-called independent Democrats—not his boss, Sobrino said. When the GOP agreed to raise the wage in secret last-minute negotiations—after blocking it for years—the final bill did not include a tip wage increase for waiters and bartenders, which is what the industry wanted. Tipped workers at car washes and airports will get a raise, said Working Families spokesman Joe Dinkin. “But hotel and restaurant waiters and bartenders, which are the largest group of tipped workers, do not get an automatic increase. Rather, the tipped minimum wage will go to the Wage Board, which is controlled by Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo, to do what he wants with it. And yes, this is because of the National Restaurant Association.”

The bill also contained an unprecedented and alarming payoff to fast-food chains and big retailers: a tax credit offsetting the cost of hiring teenagers, but only for minimum wage. That subsidy drew the media’s attention. AWall Street Journaleditorial, “Minimum Intelligence,” said it provided an incentive to fire workers 20 years and older and replace them with teens. “For a teen working full time, the annual subsidy could be worth as much as $2,800 per worker by 2016,” theBuffalo News editorial said.

Sen. Peralta, the Queens Democrat, has since proposed a bill to nullify the tax break that analysts say will be worth millions to big employers. There were two features of this deal that exempifly how the NRA operates, ROC’s Jayaraman said. First, NRA lobbyists keep telling lawmakers that their industry primarily employees teenagers and young people who don’t need higher wages and benefits. Their PR shop has even absurdly claimed that raising minimum wages would kill entry-level jobs. That line apparently was bought by New York State’s Republican senator who inserted the tax subsidy at the last minute.

But the brouhaha over the tax subsidy also helped the NRA keep its last-minute deal on excluding the minimum wage for food servers somewhat hidden. “They are worried about public outrage,” Jayaraman said, noting that the same kind of secret last-minute deal excluding tip wages emerged in Connecticut when it raised its minimum wage. “That happened at the last minute with legislators and lobbyists for the NRA,” she said. “Everyone who had been working on this was blindsided. Typically, they don’t bring it [excluding tip wages] up at hearings.”

Maryland: Sowing Fear Not Hope

But in Maryland, the NRA’s lobbyists were more brazen. They did bring it up excluding tipped workers and they trashed them—but only after waiting six hours to testify, long after most labor activists had testified and the hearing room was almost empty.

First came Carville Collins, representing a regional Wendy’s chain with 108 stores and 3,100 employees. He rolled out the NRA’s standard “job killer” speech, which was also presented by NRA lobbyists in Congress this spring. Carville said that raising wages “imposes costs we cannot pass onto consumers.” He said a proposed three-step increase to $10 an hour would cause “five to eight” stores to close, putting as many as 300 people out of work. Moreover, if Maryland’s minimum wage was higher than nearby states, it would attract out-of-staters who would “come and displace Maryland workers.” Carville then cited research from the NRA-funded Employment Policy Institute, projecting that a national $9.80 minimum wage would kill “256,000 to 768,000 jobs,” including thousands of jobs in Maryland.

Melvin Thompson, senior vice president of the NRA’s state affiliate, the Restaurant Association of Maryland, immediately followed, and opposed raising minimum wages “for all the reasons you have heard already.” But then he attacked, claiming that servers often stole tips—saying they didn’t need an increase. He said restaurant workers made two to three times the minimum wage and some waiters earned more money than owners. He concluded, “the tip portion doesn’t need to be included in this bill.”

Needless to say, progressive restaurant owners, activists and economists have thoroughly debunked each of these claims. As Zingerman’s Saginaw said, “The workforce has changed. It’s not just students and people out of college. It’s much more diverse than that.” Economists have pointed out that at McDonald’s, for example, half of the cost of raising its minimum hourly pay to $10.50 could come by adding a nickel to the price of a $4 Big Mac. Other studies by ROC have found that a dime increase in daily food prices could support a 33 percent raise for minimum wage workers and a doubling of the base tip wage.

But, as the Wellstone Institute’s Ben Goldfarb explained, NRA lobbyists seek to sow just enough doubt and gray areas that it becomes easy for legislators to vote against proposed wage-increase bills, or just exempt their industry entirely…

Suppressing Wages Isn’t Enough

…The NRA did not respond to a list of questions from AlterNet beyond an initial phone call where a spokeswoman emphasized that the industry’s profit margins are so slim—3 or 4 percent—it can’t afford to do more. Yet the industry is America’s largest low-wage sector and is filled with corporations that have been consistently profitable despite the sluggish economy, according to NELP’sanalyses of Wall Street earnings reports. Yet the NRA not only opposes raising wages and linking wages to inflation, it has another draconian priority: opposing local laws granting earned sick leave.

Despite protests by workers who have publically explained what it’s like to have to go to work sick, the NRA has been lobbying in statehouses to preempt cities and counties from passing local laws that would require employers to grant earned paid sick leave. ROC notes that 90 percent of restaurant workers don’t have paid sick days, and “two-thirds report cooking, preparing and serving food while sick.” That reality, captured in videos by sick workers, helped a coalition led by Working Families in New York City and Connecticut to adopt local sick leave laws. These were significant victories. The New York City law will affect a million workers. (San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Oregon, and the District of Columbia also require earned sick time.)

New York’s passage of sick leave legislation grabbed headlines, especially as it became law when the city council overrode Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s veto. But in the past two years, NRA lobbyists have pushed eight states to preempt or repeal local labor laws that include requiring paid sick leave. The industry—helped by prominent Democrats such as Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter—also beat proposed sick leave laws in Denver and Philadelphia.

This trend started in Wisconsin and shows how right-wing alliances spread anti-labor legislation. In 2011, Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker backed an industry-led effort to ban paid sick leave laws, like the one Milwaukee’s voters adopted as a ballot measure in 2008 while Walker was county executive—its top elected official. Seventy percent of voters had backed paid sick leave. That spring, the passage of Wisconsin’s bill preempting local laws was touted as a model by the NRA at meetings of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the pro-corporate lobbying mill. ALEC members, almost all Republicans, introduced copycat bills in their states, Wellstone Action’s Goldfarb said, saying this was how the NRA’s priority spread and “scaled.” These were passed by GOP-majority statehouses, sometimes using strongarm tactics that dismayed labor organizers.

This summer, for example, Republicans in Florida’s Orange County—near Walt Disney World—were lobbied by fast-food giants, including Darden, which owns Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Capital Grille, and Disney, and intentionally delayed acting on another sick leave ballot measure that had 80 percent support in polls. That tactic gave the restaurant lobby time to push its preemption bill through its legislature, which GOP Gov. Rick Scott signed into law in July. Arizona, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kansas, Indiana and Tennessee have all passed bans on local sick leave laws. Michigan, Alabama, Oklahoma and South Carolina are considering it.

The Arizona Restaurant Association lobbyist said last March that no one was proposing a sick leave law in her state, but “we’re fortunate to get out in front if it.” In Memphis, Tennessee, the prospect that Shelby County was considering a wage theft ordinance—because restaurants there hadn’t paid $270,000 in back wages to workers that a coalition of lawyers and churches recovered in court—prompted its GOP-majority state legislature to act and preempt local labor laws. “That [wage-theft law]… would have been very harmful to local businesses,” the Tennessee Hospitality Association told its members.

Public Health vs. Private Profits

In all these political fights, the question of who is being harmed is the critical question. The NRA is touting an old anti-regulatory script—trotted out by state chambers of commerce for years—that any cost that cuts into profits is a job killer and must be stopped. But advocates like ROC and Working Families say that argument is upside down. Low pay and no benefits not only hurts worker productivity, it also hurts families and undercuts local consumer spending.

“It’s an old-school chamber of commerce attitude—it’s anti regulation,” Zingerman’s Saginaw said. “We believe that by paying higher wages and benefits we will get better productivity from our staff and have more satisfied customers.”

And when it comes to sick leave, there is another dimension: the public is at risk when food is prepared by workers who can’t afford to take a day or few hours off to visit a doctor. ROC’s 2012 report on Darden described a North Carolina Olive Garden worker who came to work in 2011 with Hepatitis A, prompting the county to vaccinate thousands of people and a class-action lawsuit.

“Almost no laws anywhere in the country require restaurants to provide paid sick leave for employees who come down with anything from the sniffles to a norovirus,” noted “On the other hand, pretty much every single municipal health department in the country has a rule or law requiring employers to keep sick employees away from food and out of the restaurants, and that’s where things get problematic.”

Huffington Post: Minimum Wage For Restaurant Servers Remains Stagnant For 20 Years Under Industry Lobbying

“But since 1966, a sub-section of the minimum wage has existed for people who work for gratuities, known as the “tipped minimum wage,” which Congress last bumped to $2.13 per hour in 1991. Some states have increased the tipped minimum wage on their own as well — and Washington, like six other states, has no tipped minimum wage at all, so servers earn a full $9.04 before gratuities. About half of all states, however, continue to allow restaurants to pay servers $2.13, provided they make up the difference if the server doesn’t reach the standard minimum wage after tips.

The cost of living, meanwhile, has continued to climb.

Under this system, gratuities aren’t really gratuities. They constitute the vast majority of a server’s salary. Instead of giving a server a bonus for good service, diners are essentially subsidizing many servers’ legally guaranteed wages.

And as the tipped minimum wage has remained the same, diners have been subsidizing a growing portion of that guaranteed wage over the years. Servers, meanwhile, are increasingly relying on customers to keep them on pace with inflation.

Being paid a mere $2.13 an hour before tips might not be a big deal for a server at a four-star restaurant in Manhattan, where tips are generous and workers can earn a better-than-decent living. But for a career server working at, say, a pancake house in rural Kansas, an extra couple of bucks an hour could make a huge difference…


The fact that the tipped wage has held steady for over 20 years at the federal level and in many states is a testament to the restaurant lobby’s effectiveness.  In 1996, President Bill Clinton pressured Congress to raise the minimum wage for the first time in years. He  ultimately got House Republicans on board with the wage hike, but not without a significant caveat.

The restaurant industry, led by the National Restaurant Association — and its board chairman Herman Cain, who would later become the group’s president — successfully pressured lawmakers to have the minimum wage for tipped employees separated from the increase and kept at $2.13.

“I don’t think anyone knew at that point that it was a permanent deal,” says Jen Kern, minimum wage campaign coordinator at the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for low-wage workers. “As these things happen … they become ingrained. They succeeded in creating this second-class wage system, and people accepted it as the way it’s always been.”

Indeed, paying the lowest wage possible before tips is common practice throughout the restaurant industry. According to advocates for restaurant workers, even restaurants that workers hold in high regard tend not to pay servers anything more than the tipped minimum wage, since that’s all the law mandates.

Those who say the tipped minimum wage is due for an increase argue that the growing restaurant industry can withstand it. Throughout the fits and starts of the economic recovery, the restaurant sector, much like retail, has served as one of the few reliable bright spots when job numbers are issued.

In its recent 2012 forecast, the NRA predicted record restaurant sales of $632 billion this year. It said the number of jobs in the industry would grow to nearly 13 million, accounting for roughly one-tenth of the nation’s workforce and outpacing the economy at large.

The problem, however, is that many restaurant jobs are low-paying. The average wage for food and beverage workers was $18,130 in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, meaning that many workers end up toiling below the federal poverty line. And even as the number of jobs has expanded, the wages received for those jobs have actually decreased, according to a recent report from PayScale, a website that tracks salary data.

“This is part of the stagnation we’ve seen for all workers over the last 20 or 30 years,” says Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley and a former waitress herself. “This industry is growing by leaps and bounds, but it’s not paying a good wage. The fact is we have millions of workers in this industry, and a few of them do fairly well — mostly men, at high-end restaurants.”

But the mostly female workforce of servers, she notes, has “no health care, no sick pay, no vacation. You have to make enough in wages and tips to pay for those things.” “I don’t know how anyone can defend a policy that’s been in effect for over 20 years, that’s eroded significantly in that time,” she adds. “Why should this industry benefit so much from this artificially low pay that’s instituted?”…

Infographic by Chris Spurlock.

…As the federal minimum wage has languished, many states have enacted their own, higher minimum wages for servers. But state restaurant lobbies have frequently tried to block or even roll back local increases to the minimum wage, or the passage of worker-friendly legislation like bills mandating paid sick days.”

ROC: Unmasking the Agenda of the National Restaurant Association

“Today, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, along with Alliance for a Just Society, Family Values @ Work, Food Chain Workers Alliance, Good Jobs First, Movement Strategy Center, and Real Food Media Project, release the most comprehensive examination to date of the National Restaurant Association and its top members…

…Highlights include:

  • The NRA’s political spending shows a highly partisan split – it’s given 83% of its federal contributions since 1989 to Republicans, compared to 17% to Democrats.

  • Data on the NRA’s “revolving door lobbyists”: many former chiefs of staff and legislative directors to members of Congress are on the NRA’s payroll. With 27 revolving door lobbyists last year, the Restaurant Association’s had almost twice as many as the National Rifle Association.

  • NRA has compromised the health and nutrition of millions of U.S. consumers — including children — by opposing public health policy measures like nutritional menu labeling requirements, limitations on the marketing of junk food to children, and regulation of sodium, sugar, and trans-fats in processed foods.

  • The NRA has successfully shepherded legislation that strips the rights of localities to vote on paid sick day legislation in nine states, and has helped introduce similar legislation in at least seven more.

  • Analysis on a loophole in the tax law allows corporations to deduct an unlimited amount of the cost of performance pay options from their income taxes resulting in US taxpayers subsidizing nearly $232 million in CEO compensation for the top 20 restaurant chains in the National Restaurant Association.”


ROC: National Restaurant Association eviscerates the rights of customers, workers, and children

“Food movement leaders tend to stick to their specific issues, whether it’s advocating for healthy food, fighting for workers’ rights or curbing marketing to children. For each of these issues, there are numerous food corporations that need to change. But there is one organization that conveniently provides us with one giant target for all of them: the National Restaurant Association.

The “other NRA” employs 750 staffers and spent nearly $4 million on lobbying and campaign donations in 2012 alone. The trade group representing some 52,000 members was named a “Heavy Hitter” by the Center for Responsive Politics for being a top corporate player in Washington, D.C. No wonder, with board members that include the nation’s largest chains such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Starbucks, and Darden (the restaurant conglomerate that owns Olive Garden and Red Lobster), among others.

NRA Hates Public Health

The National Restaurant Association has had a negative impact on a wide range of issues that foodies tend to care about. Do you think chain restaurants should provide basic nutrition information to their customers? Is it really too much to ask to disclose the calorie count for dishes like the “Five Cheese Ziti” or the “Steak Gorgonzola-Alfredo” at Olive Garden? The NRA thinks so, as the group lobbied against menu labeling laws for decades, until they “gave in” by stripping states of their right to enact such laws. The NRA hated New York City’s menu labeling rules so much that the group filed a lawsuit to stop implementation. They lost.

But that didn’t stop NRA lawyers from filing another lawsuit against New York City when lobbyists didn’t get their way again, this time to oppose limiting the size of sugary soft drinks. (That case is still pending.) Science and plain common sense tells us that consuming sodas out of bucket-size containers is probably not good for you. Yet the NRA and its members demand their right to keep selling these disease-inducing beverages by waging an aggressive astroturf and media campaign in cahoots with the soda industry to manipulate public opinion.

Other public health policies the NRA has vigorously opposed include soda taxestrans fat bans and lowering sodium levels, which are sky-high in chain restaurants. But there are a few policies the NRA is actually in favor of, such as expanding the use of food stamps for fast food. They also led the charge for “cheeseburger bills”, which aim to shut the courtroom door to customers harmed by unhealthy fare.

NRA Hates Children

An especially important issue on the NRA’s menu of obstruction is marketing to children. Despite decades of advocacy efforts aimed at getting the food industry to stop targeting children as young as age two, we’ve come up mostly empty. A few years ago, the NRA helped kill an effort by four federal agencies to improve the industry’s notoriously lax voluntary guidelines on food marketing to children. The NRA also lobbies to make sure that children continue to be targeted with toys in unhealthy meals. All the while, the NRA pretends to care about kids by inventing a public relations scheme it calls “Kids LiveWell” purporting to help parents find healthy food for their children when dining out. Too bad the evidence shows almost all of such meals are of poor nutritional quality.

NRA Hates Animals

Not content just to be an enemy of public health, the restaurant lobby also takes aim at those advocating for sustainable food and farm animal welfare. One of the NRA’s favorite mouthpieces is the notorious lobbyist Rick Berman, who revels in his nickname “Dr. Evil,” and mounts aggressive campaigns against labor organizationsnutrition groups, and animal welfare advocates while his clients keep their noses clean. Berman has penned articles published in the industry trade paper, the Nation’s Restaurant News, for example, criticizing recent restaurant industry pledges to raise pigs humanely and calling on restaurants to fight back against animal activists, warning: “Operators need to roll up their sleeves before it’s too late.” Berman also loves pink slime and mercury-laden fish. Berman misses no opportunity to slam advocates of sustainable food, touting “modern technology for maximizing the efficiency of [food] processing.” He’s even attacked Michelle Obama for calling on restaurants to serve healthier options for children and families.

NRA Hates Workers

If all of that isn’t enough evil-doing, the NRA’s main agenda is to keep workers down by spreading fear about the alleged economic doom that would bestow the restaurant industry by meager increases in worker wages and paid sick days. The federal minimum wage is stuck at $7.25 an hour. Can you live on that? Today is February 13, a reminder that the federal minimum wage for tipped workers is only $2.13 an hour – it’s been stuck there since 1991 – or, more accurately, the NRA and its members have kept it there. The NRA wants the restaurant industry to stand alone in not having to pay its own workers – claiming that we, the customers, pay their workers’ wages for them through our tips.

The restaurant industry loves to whine about how it cannot possibly afford to raise worker wages. But as author Anna Lappé recently pointed out, Darden (the leading sit-down restaurant chain) pays its top five executivesmore than $16 million a year. McDonald’s paid its CEO more than $13.8 million in 2012, even with declining sales. With that kind of money to throw around, leading restaurants can more than afford to pay their workers a living wage.

NRA members would still have plenty of money left over for other business improvements, such as sourcing more sustainable food and insisting their meat suppliers stop engaging in cruelty. Some changes wouldn’t even cost them money, like no longer exploiting children. That change would save restaurants money; money better spent on workers’ wages and paid sick days. It’s time for the food movement to come together and fight this common enemy.”

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Restaurant Rights Campaigns

  • Fight for 15
    • The Fight for $15 began in 2012 when two hundred fast-food workers walked off the job to demand $15/hr and union rights in New York City.  Since then “Fight for 15” has become a global movement in over 300 cities on six continents working towards better wages and unions.
  • One Fair Wage Campaign
  • DC Campaign
    • The “Fight for $15” DC campaign won  legislation to raised the DC minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020
      • But tip employees we’re left out and will only get $5.55 an hour, a raised from $3.33
      • ROC’s One Fair Wage Campaign is working on ballot initiative 77 (2018) to raise the minimum wage for restaurant workers to $15 like the rest of DC workers.
  • Restarunt Opportunity Center (ROC) National Diners Guide App
    • A consumer guide on the working condition of American restaurants.  This guide provides information on the wage, benefits, and promotion practices of the 150 most popular restaurants in America – from Red Lobster to Subway to Chipotle. The Guide also lists responsible restaurants in several major U.S. cities where you can eat knowing that your server can afford to pay their rent and your cook does not have to work while sick.
  • Real Food Media
    • Organizing tool kits, education and films around organizing food workers
  • Responsible Consumerism
    • As consumers its always important to understand that cheap food still cost the same as other food.  But instead of you picking up most of the tab it comes out of employees checks and rights, the environment, animal welfare, etc.  When possible be intentional about where you spend your money.

SCPR: Cheap eats, cheap labor: The hidden human costs of those lists

“This view of people of color as sources of “cheap” labor bleeds into our restaurant culture: Immigrant food is often expected to be cheap, because, implicitly, the labor that produces it is expected to be cheap, because that labor has historically been cheap. And so pulling together a “cheap eats” list rather than, say, an “affordable eats” list both invokes that history and reinforces it by prioritizing price at the expense of labor.

At my restaurant, an appetizer of spring rolls is $7. A chicken banh mi with house-made mayo and a side of fries or slaw is $12. A chicken pho is $11. I use sustainably grown chickens; the vegetables are from the farmers market. My staff are paid well over minimum wage. Generally, though, my prices are compared not to other restaurants that use sustainable ingredients and work towards paying their workers a living wage, but to Vietnamese restaurants where bowls of pho run $7, banh mis are $3 (or you can buy two and get one free). And because of that focus on price above all else, I’ve been criticized for being too expensive. I’ve been told flatly by Yelpers, customers and food reviewers that my restaurant is too expensive “for Vietnamese food.”

I’m fully aware of the irony here: My family and I came to the U.S. as refugees in the 1970s and ’80s. My relatives, like so many immigrant entrepreneurs, did what they had to do with their restaurant to survive and created a business model that worked for their time. That business model became the dominant model. It continues to be the dominant model. That business model is the one the ultimately traps the entrepreneur who would like to break out of this mold.

I have worked hard to combat the underlying racism that drives so much of the “celebration” of “cheap eats,” and I believe that consumers and food media can play a large part in this fight. We need to rethink the very idea behind cheap eats lists. We need to recognize that the narratives we tell ourselves about immigrant resourcefulness and tenacity also makes us willfully blind to the human cost that makes the $3 banh mi possible.”

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Current Federal Protections

Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

In conjunction with state laws, the FLSA establishes the following minimum standards for businesses in the foodservice industry:

  • An establishment’s annual gross sales must total at least $500,000 to be subject to FLSA rules / regulations
  • Entitles non-exempt workers to federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour unless an individual state’s law requires a higher wage
  • Deductions for cash shortages, required uniforms, or customer walk-outs are illegal if they drop the employee’s wage below the minimum wage
  • Tips may be considered part of wages, but the employer has to pay no less than $2.13 an hour and also make sure the tips add up to the minimum wage
  • Employees who work overtime are to be paid one and one-half times their regular rate of pay for each hour over 40 hours per week
  • Tipped employees who work overtime are to be paid one and one-half times the applicable minimum wage, not one and one-half times $2.13
  • Youth employees under the age of 20 may be paid a minimum wage of no less than $4.25 an hour during the first 90 days of their employment

For more information on the minimum cash and tipped wage in your state, check out this data from the United States Department of Labor.

Employing Youths

When scheduling workers under the age of 17, employers have to follow several FLSA guidelines for youth employees. Workers between the ages of 14 and 15 may work outside of school hours in non-hazardous jobs for no more than 3 hours on a school day, 18 hours in a school week, 8 hours on a non-school day, or 40 hours in a non-school week. They also may not work before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. except between June 1 and Labor Day, when those hours are extended until 9 p.m.

Hazardous vs. Non-Hazardous Jobs

Employees who are 16 years old may perform any non-hazardous job for an unlimited amount of hours until they turn 18, and are considered adults. Any employee under the age of 18 is prohibited from performing hazardous job duties.

Hazardous Non-Hazardous
  • Using bakery equipment
  • Operating meat-processing equipment
  • Operating or maintaining power-driven equipment like slicers, grinders, mixers, etc.
  • Cashier and bagging duties
  • Fruit and vegetable cleaning / prep
  • Dish-washing
  • Light-duty cooking

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA)

OSHA was passed in 1970 to create healthier, safer working environments through training, outreach, education, and assistance. OSHA requires that all employers:

  • Provide a hazard communication program for employees
  • Train employees properly to prevent accidents
  • Provide necessary protective equipment
  • Have access to a first aid kit
  • Display posters from the Department of Labor or their state labor department that inform employees of their protections and rights (example seen to the right)

OSHA permits states to submit their own safety plans for approval. The following image indicates those states with OSHA-approved plans for private and public sector employees, or both.


Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

This commission reviews cases of discrimination and enforces the federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against job applicants or employees based on the following:

  • Race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information
  • A complaint about discrimination on an employee’s behalf

Laws enforced by the EEOC:

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, or sex. The law also makes it illegal to retaliate against someone for filing a charge, complaining of, or taking part in a lawsuit or investigation of discrimination.
  • The Pregnancy Discrimination Act that outlaws discrimination because of pregnancy, childbirth, or a medical condition related to child birth
  • The Equal Pay Act of 1963 that makes it illegal to pay different wages to men and women if they perform equal work in the same workplace.
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 that protects people 40 and older from discrimination based on age.
  • Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 that makes it illegal to discriminate against a qualified person because of a disability in both the public and private sectors. It also requires employers to reasonably accommodate physical or mental handicaps in their establishments where not doing so would cause undue hardship
  • Sections 102 and 103 of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 that permits jury trials and monetary damage awards in intentional discrimination cases
  • Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that makes it illegal to discriminate against a qualified person with a disability in the federal government
  • The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 that makes it illegal to discriminate against employees or applicants based on their genetic information that might identify family members, disease information, or disorders and conditions in the family’s medical history

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Learn More

The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United “Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry”

Saru Jayaraman – Forked: A New Standard for American Dining

WAMU: There’s An Under-The-Radar Fight Going On In D.C. Over How Much Restaurant Workers Should Be Paid

Newsweek: Trump’s New Rule Could Take Billions in Tips From Workers and Give It to Their Bosses

EPI: Proposed rule would protect employers who steal workers’ hard-earned tips

Washington Post: Rape in the storage room. Groping at the bar. Why is the restaurant industry so terrible for women?

Washington Post: Rape in the storage room. Groping at the bar. Why is the restaurant industry so terrible for women?

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Follow Campaign

Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC)

One Fair Wage

Fight for 15

Food Chain Workers Alliance

Unite Here: Real Food Real Jobs Campaign

Alliance for a Just Society

Family Values @ Work

Good Jobs First

Movement Strategy Center

Real Food Media Project

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