8 Things We Learned About Racial And Gender Wage Inequality In The Restaurant Industry

Image courtesy of Cpt. Brick

With nearly 11 million people working in the restaurant industry in the United States, the field has become one of the most populated in the workforce. But a new report finds that while there’s a plethora of positions in the restaurant business, there’s a stark difference between livable-wage and poverty-wage positions and it tends to further segregate employees by gender and race. 

The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United released a report [PDF] Tuesday exploring the wide-ranging economic positions of service industry workers and calling for an end for what it calls racial and gender occupational segregation.

“While Jim Crow regulated the enforced separation between white and African American patrons in restaurants,” the report states, “today we largely find that restaurant workers are effectively segregated by race and gender by a partition between livable-wage server and bartender positions and poverty wage busser, runner, and kitchen positions.”

ROC United's report looked at segregation between restaurant industry workers, breaking the dining establishments into front and back of house positions.

ROC United’s report looked at segregation between restaurant industry workers, breaking the dining establishments into front and back of house positions.

The report, which focuses on a wide range of California restaurants and was compiled using government data, employer interviews and expert interviews, highlight the precarious situation many workers find themselves in financially.

While we suggest you take a look at the findings for yourself, here are our top eight takeaways from ROC United’s report.

1. Restaurant workers occupy seven of the 10 lowest-paid occupations reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, according to the report.

Employees filling these low-wage positions – including bussers, dishwashers and kitchen staff – experience poverty at nearly three times the rate of workers overall. Additionally, workers of color experience poverty at nearly twice the rate of white restaurant workers.

2. Through its analysis, ROC United found that white males were given the opportunity to work in the highest paying, most exclusive bartender and server positions in fine-dining restaurants.

Women were found to have been steered more toward lower paying positions in casual full-service restaurants, while Latinos and African Americans were more often employed as lower paid bussers, food runners, or kitchen staff in full service and fast food restaurants.

3. When examining restaurant wages by gender and race, ROC United found that women of color – who are often excluded from participating in the most lucrative segments of the industry – earned 71% of what white men earned.

The average wage in the U.S. and California varied between races and genders.

The average wage in the U.S. and California varied between races and genders.

In fact, women of color earned $10.13/hour on average, compared to $11.30/hour for white women, $11.63/hour for men of color, and $14.18/hour for white men.

4. While all workers of color were found to experience segregation in the California dining industry, Latino employees had the highest levels of directly observed occupational segregation with a substantial under-representation in the higher-paying server and bartender positions, the report states.

Conversely, the report found that African Americans, while largely absent from full service restaurant positions, were overrepresented in limited-service fast food occupations.

5. In the restaurants observed in Oakland, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Los Angeles, ROC United determined a majority had white serving and bartending staff, and an overwhelmingly majority Latino kitchen staff.

Despite this, many restaurant owners expressed that they were “diverse” or even “very diverse” in their staffing.

6. Based on interviews with employees, ROC United found that while in some cases employers knowingly discriminated against minorities, it was often structural barriers that kept workers of color from obtaining livable-wage fine-dining service positions.

Things like lack of training, social networks, transportation, childcare, and interactions with the criminal justice system often proved to be barriers that resulted in employers lacking pools of candidates of color for hiring in these often better paid positions.

Additionally, worker and employer interviews conducted by ROC United found that self-selection bias existed: workers of color were less likely to apply for top-tier positions in fine-dining establishments, either because “management and/or clientele behavior makes them uncomfortable, or because they feel they lack the education or skills to succeed in those positions.”

7. The report also found the that racial and gender segregation in the industry was perpetrated in part because of customers.

While many restaurant owners declined to discuss customer bias, some noted that their customers preferred to be served by workers of their own race, while others “just want good service.”

In one particular interview a restaurant owner described customers’ treatment of minority employees: “we do get a sector of the population, we do get a lot of business people, and then we get a lot of entitled people. There is a way in which they talk to the staff which is very inappropriate or is not respectful.”

8. ROC United’s report also brings up questions regarding the industry’s long-held tipping standard and how it is often another avenue of segregation.

In past research, customers have been found to discriminate based on race and gender, leaving greater tips for women who have blond hair or that are rated as physically attractive.

“The tipping system itself, in particular when tips are the primary source of an individual’s income, appears to promote sexual harassment not only in interactions between customers and tipped workers, but in social interactions throughout the restaurant,” the report states.

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