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Woman server with plateHeading out this Valentine’s Day? Keep restaurant workers’ well-being in-mind.

By Courtney Kishbaugh

Valentine’s Day is the second most popular day to dine out, according to the National Restaurant Association. As couples flock to restaurants all over the country, they should keep in mind that the backhouse realities of the restaurant industry are far from romantic.

It takes a bit of research to know the issues that restaurant workers are handling on the job—like harassment from co-workers, lack of benefits such as paid sick days, and low pay—since they are not evident from within a candle-lit dining room.  But with a bit of information, diners can choose to visit food establishments that value job quality and workers’ well-being.

The restaurant industry can be an especially difficult workplace for women. The combination of high rates of sexual harassment, low wages, and unstable work schedules all disproportionately affect women, and their economic security.

Treatment that would typically incite outrage in many other workplaces is considered the norm in restaurants, and women are suffering for it. Sexual harassment is a huge problem in the restaurant industry. Data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) shows that, in 2011, almost 37 percent of sexual harassment cases reported that year occurred in restaurants, making the restaurant industry the “single largest source of sexual harassment claims.” Speaking from personal experience, I can attest to the fact that actions typically seen as unacceptable in most workplaces are customary in restaurants.

Simultaneously, the majority of people earning the tipped minimum wage is female. (The federal tipped minimum wage is now $2.13 per hour, and tips are supposed to bring the workers at least up to the regular federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.) Women tend to be stuck in lower paying positions in the kitchen or dining room, rather than rising through the ranks to salaried jobs, evidenced by the fact that women fill only 19 percent of the higher paying chef positions. Though the restaurant I worked at was high-end and earning less than the regular minimum wage was never an issue, Women’s eNews reported  that “tipped workers are more likely to fall into poverty than those who receive [the regular] minimum wage,” and that “servers rely on food stamps at nearly double the rate of the general population.”

In addition, though female servers make up the majority in casual dining establishments, a male majority workforce prevails in fine dining. This leads to further income inequality because women are not only stuck in tipped positions, but also prevented from moving into the higher paid bracket of the tipped positions. The proportion of female servers was much lower at a fine dining restaurant I worked in, and very few women worked in the salaried manager or kitchen positions, outside of the dessert and pastry shop.

The industry’s unstable work schedule disproportionately affects women, who often are primary caretakers in their families. Many restaurants stay open until the last customer leaves, while others have hours that go until three in the morning. Child care centers are seldom open at these late hours, leaving women hard-pressed to find adequate child care. Furthermore, last-minute schedule changes, based on customer volume, can make it difficult for women to make arrangements for their family, a situation already made challenging by low pay.

However, these facts should not ruin the prospect of eating out on Valentine’s Day.  Those planning on eating out should consider using the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) dining guide (available either as a PDF or as a free mobile app for smartphones) that details which restaurants pay their workers fairly and provide them with benefits, such as paid sick days. The guide covers a number of restaurants in major cities such as New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

Supporting establishments that treat their workers fairly is a step in the right direction to improve the situation of restaurant staff in general, especially women, by increasing their economic security.

Courtney Kishbaugh is a Research Intern with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and is currently a student at Georgetown University.

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