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Do You Eat Ethically? Take a Peek 'Behind the Kitchen Door'

Saru Jayaraman is the co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) and the director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Behind the Kitchen Door, forthcoming from Cornell University Press. 

People are eating out more than ever before—the average American adult eats out at least five times a week, significantly more than our parents or grandparents. This means that the impact of restaurant workers on our everyday lives—their role in nourishing our friends and families—is becoming increasingly important.

Now, while Americans have become more and more concerned with the quality of their food—organic, locally sourced, hormone-free, grass-fed—it appears as if the labor conditions of the workers who grow, transport, cook and serve that very food are not critical to enjoying a healthy and ethical meal.

Over the last year I have been working on a book that challenges this notion—Behind The Kitchen Door. In the book, which will be released Feb. 13, 2013, I follow the lives of ten restaurant workers in cities across the country—from New York City to Houston to Miami to New Orleans—and show that the quality of the food that arrives at our restaurant tables is not just a product of raw ingredients: it’s the product of the hands that chop, grill, sauté and serve it.

One of the stories in my book is that of Claudia Munoz, a young immigrant restaurant worker who worked at a national pancake chain restaurant in Texas. Claudia earned $2.13 an hour, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers. Even though by law employers are required to ensure tips make up the difference for workers between $2.13 and the federal minimum wage of $7.25, in Claudia’s case, tips very frequently did not make up the difference. The manager told her that she had to report that she made $7.25 regardless, because he did not want the multi-million dollar business to be liable for paying her the minimum wage. Management also illegally forced her to pay the company out of her tips when guests walked out without paying the bill. Very frequently her wages were so low that they would go entirely to taxes, resulting in a $0 paycheck that read, “THIS IS NOT A CHECK.” Claudia earned so little she could barely afford food to eat.

In later reflection on her time at the Houston restaurant, Claudia realized she didn’t even have it as bad as other women in the restaurant:

You know I think my experience in Austin hadn’t shown me what working in the restaurant industry was like. But working in Houston definitely showed me. In Houston there were lot of older people—women in their 50’s. They had children, families and some were single mothers. It became more real. People were always really bitchy and feisty. For them, this was it. It was their job....For them this was everything they had. When a table was not assigned to them, they took it personally, they got in your face about it. They had families, and $2.13 plus tips was all they had for themselves and their families.

More than 50 percent of the 4,323 restaurant workers nationwide surveyed by the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) live in poverty—restaurant servers earning $2.13 are twice as likely to use food stamps and three times as likely to live in poverty. About 46 percent report not receiving overtime wages, and an even higher number experience different kinds of wage theft, in which employers misappropriate tips, pay workers for less than they are owed or sometimes, don’t pay them at all. In fact, wage theft by employers is so pervasive in the restaurant industry that the U.S. Department of Labor has told us on numerous occasions that they receive more complaints from workers about wage theft from the restaurant industry than from workers in any other industry. Further, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), seven of the 10 worst paying jobs in America are restaurants jobs—the great majority of restaurant workers have no living wages, no health care, no paid sick days, no paid vacation, no pension and no job security.

These awful standards exist even though the restaurant industry is one of the largest and fastest-growing sectors of the U.S. economy, with more than 10 million workers nationwide and record revenue projections of $630 billion for 2012. The restaurant industry is a massive sector that is expected to continually expand but that record-breaking growth is directly on the backs of workers struggling with poverty wages.

Behind the Kitchen Door is our attempt to reach a wider audience— to talk to the broader American public, educate them on the challenges faced by the workers who feed them and their families regularly and to make the case that a healthy and safe meal relies on healthy workers.

If you would like more information on the upcoming book, Behind the Kitchen Door, please visit our website—www.behindthekitchendoor.org—and sign up for our listserve.

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