(NaturalNews) If you're like most Americans, you enjoy a meal out once in a while (and not to lecture, but based on the serving sizes restaurants heap on plates, it should be only once in a while). But did you know this 620 billion-dollar-a-year industry offers workers some of the lowest wages and benefits packages, paying workers as little as $2.13 an hour?
According to Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United , an advocacy group seeking to raise awareness about the low pay and poor economic conditions offered to food service industry workers, in the land of the free, plenty of restaurant employees are often treated little better than medieval serfs.
"We all enjoy eating out," says ROC United, which has published a "Diner's Guide" to help restaurant-goers find out where to "eat responsibly."
"Unfortunately, the workers who cook, prepare, and serve our food suffer from poverty wages, no benefits like paid sick days, and little or no chance to move up to better positions. When the people who serve us food can't afford to pay the rent or take a day off when they're sick, our dining experience suffers," the group says on its Web site.
The aim of the group is to highlight inequities within restaurant chains towards their employees. Some of ROC United's findings are shocking, to say the least. The group sets minimum standards in its guide but a number of chains fail to even meet them.
Problems like discrimination and 'wage theft' abound
The guide delineates between eateries that belong to the ROC's "High Road" Restaurant Roundtable program, which brings workers together "to promote the high road to profitability" in the industry, and lesser establishments. In doing so, ROC scores restaurants and chains in four categories: the minimum wage for tipped workers, the minimum wage for non-tipped workers, whether or not workers get paid sick days, and whether the company offers opportunities for advancement.
Singled out for special contempt is the Darden restaurant group, which owns the Red Lobster, Capital Grille, Olive Garden, and Longhorn Steakhouse chains. A number of employees from the chain have sought assistance from ROC over cases involving discriminatory practices and "wage theft," the latter a system whereby "restaurants deny pay to employees through practices like working off the clock, including asking servers and other employees to do 'side work' like rolling silverware, filling salt and pepper shakers and other custodial duties without clocking in, or assigning tipped employees non-tipped tasks without changing their pay rate for those hours," says this report.
In response, the ROC organization has created a Web site called Dignity at Darden, which encourages visitors to sign an electronic petition that essentially asks Darden management to treat employees better.
The site claims that Darden has fired black servers "because they did not fit the company standard" at their Capital Grille fine dining restaurant in Chevy Chase, Md.," prevents minority and immigrant employees "from accessing living wage positions, such as server and bartender, at their Capital Grille fine dining restaurant," and makes workers perform "off the clock."
No livable wage, despite the hard work
The problem is Darden's clout. In the recent controversy over minimum wage laws in New York state, lawmakers were deluged by lobbyists from the food service industry. But Darden didn't join the group; Darden had its own set of lobbyists. The goal was to ensure its restaurants were not subjected to the same wage laws as other businesses.
"The food service industry makes up one of the largest private sector work forces, second only to retail. They're predicting over $620 billion in revenues this year, and yet, restaurant jobs make up seven of the ten lowest paid jobs in the country," ROC Communications Coordinator Meghana Reddy told Raw Story recently.
"People don't understand and respect the intensity, physically and emotionally, of working in a restaurant, particularly at peak hours," she said.
Most other restaurants on the ROC guide didn't fare well either. Starbucks, McDonald's, Arby's, Hooters, Denny's and scores of others only paid their tipped employees an average of $2.13 an hour and virtually no benefits, which include paid sick time or health insurance.