Study of DC Restaurant Workers Shows Widespread Abuse and Health Risks

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Valentine’s Day is one of the most popular nights for dining out in the United States. Many of the professionals involved in creating those restaurant experiences in the front and back of house love restaurants and find real fulfillment in helping diners create positive memories. Hidden from the average diner’s view, however, are a variety of challenges facing restaurant workers.

The Restaurant Opportunity Council of DC held a meeting this morning to discuss the findings of their report, Behind the Kitchen Door: Inequality and Opportunity in Washington, DC’s Thriving Restaurant Industry, delving into racial inequalities, employee mistreatment, low wages, and risks to worker safety and public health. Many diners may understand that working in a restaurant kitchen or even waiting tables are far from lucrative or glamourous occupations, but the findings of the report include widespread wage theft (workers being pressured to clock out hours before being allowed to leave work to avoid overtime payments) and tip theft, verbal abuse by managers, and gender and racial disparities in hiring and promotions – even at fine dining establishments.

Of particular concern to public health officials and policy makers presenting at the meeting were the very small number of food service workers who have paid sick days from their jobs. Almost 60% of the 562 surveyed restaurant workers in DC said they had come in to work and handled food served to customers while they were sick and potentially contagious. DC Councilmember Phil Mendelson compared the campaign to get paid time off for sick workers to the campaign for a smoking ban, both in terms of public health importance and the push-back from some industry and consumer groups.

Andy Shallall, owner of the Busboys & Poets chain and Eatonville, the host site of the meeting, has tried to position his company as what ROC labels a “high road employer” – offering paid sick leave, health care, and on the job training for his staff as well as buying clean energy to power his restaurants and using sustainable ingredients in his food. These practices, he noted, have costs – and some of that cost will inevitably show up on the diner’s bill. He has encountered some customers who are uncomfortable paying the higher prices associated with his way of doing business – which he suggests is why some other employers cut corners. If diners fixate on low prices and the fastest possible service and continue to patronize establishments that are less transparent about how they treat workers, he concludes that restaurant owners will continue to lower standards to meet demand.

Workplace discrimination is unfortunately widespread in the industry, with workers of color – particularly undocumented workers – often being hired for the lowest-paying jobs in the back of house with the highest risks of injury. White workers, the study finds, are much more likely to be hired for front of house roles and paid considerably more than workers of color. “Fine dining” category restaurants in the study show high rates of racial as well as gender discrimination. One of the ROC-DC worker members who spoke at the event, a hostess at a upscale DC restaurant, described facing this kind of discrimination at her workplace. White men are most likely to be hired as servers, whereas women may find it hard to advance out of roles as reservationists and hostesses – traditionally female roles in the front of house.

This meeting in Washington is part of a “national day of action” sponsored by ROC groups across the country, though the local restaurant economy is one of the strongest of the cities involved. Food service industry employment in the region has grown 17% in recent years as many new establishments continue to open. However, despite growth, median wages in the industry have been stagnant for a decade.

Preparing and eating food together is an important cultural experience and dining out helps our local economy and community. Diners and workers should be treated with dignity and respect. While ROC has many suggestions for government regulations, in at least the short term, it will be up to consumers to choose to patronize establishments that treat employees better, both for the sake of workers and public health. Much as diners of the last decade demanded increased transparency and sustainability about the food on their plates, restaurant labor practices seem poised to be another criterion upon which the contiencentious diner assesses where to eat – and where to avoid.

Brittany has tried to leave DC, it just never lasts. She has lived in Chicago, California, and China – but she always comes back home. Brittany is a drinks, nightlife, and style correspondent for We Love DC. Between columns, you can find her on Twitter, Tumblr, or standing by the bar. Email her at brittany(at)