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Behind the Kitchen Door

Diane Lefer: A comment last week on an LA Times blog argued that "working in a restaurant is not supposed to provide a 'living wage'. It's a job that teenagers and students use to get started in life." Not so according to ROC-LA co-coordinator Cathy Dang who reported that nationwide, people tend to stay in the industry for a lifetime.
Jason Michaud

Jason Michaud

Workplace Injuries in Restaurants

Degreaser spilled on the kitchen worker's sock but he just kept working until a co-worker noticed the man was limping and asked what was wrong. Chemicals had eaten away skin and flesh right down to exposed bone.

Workplace injuries like this are not uncommon according to the report, "Behind the Kitchen Door: Inequality and Opportunity in Los Angeles, the Nation's Largest Restaurant Industry," which was presented on Valentine's Day--the busiest day of the year for dining out--by the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Los Angeles (ROC-LA), Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, and the Los Angeles Restaurant Industry Coalition. Coming up with figures based on almost 600 interviews, including more than 30 with employers, the report states that 89.8% of restaurant workers do not receive employer-based health insurance while 31.9% were injured by toxic chemicals and more than 40% have been cut or burned on the job.

Michaud, now the chef and owner of his own Silverlake restaurant (fittingly called "Local" due to his commitment to locally grown foods), tracked down a company that makes a degreaser that doesn't burn skin. As he told 150 people in attendance at the Restaurant Industry Summit Monday morning for the official release of the ROC-LA report, an owner can improve the quality of life of employees "with a little extra work, a little extra thought."


While workers were the focus, Michaud was among the featured speakers and the gathering was held in Echo Park at Taix Restaurant, family-owned and operated for three generations since 1927, to highlight model practices and offer examples of successful restaurants that take the "high road."

That means paying decent wages, providing workplace benefits, creating opportunities for advancement, and complying with labor, employment, health and safety regulations and standards in an industry that today employs 276,100 Los Angeles workers--one in every ten of the region's total employed workforce, and pays so little that 71% of fulltime workers earn annual wages that keep a family of three below the federally recognized poverty line.

A comment last week on an LA Times blog argued that "working in a restaurant is not supposed to provide a 'living wage'. It's a job that teenagers and students use to get started in life." Not so according to ROC-LA co-coordinator Cathy Dang who reported that nationwide, people tend to stay in the industry for a lifetime. The workforce only seems transient because most restaurant workers never receive a promotion or even a modest raise after years of service and so the norm is to move from job to job seeking promotion or better working conditions.

Nora Garcia

Nora Garcia

Michael Taix pointed out that his restaurant supports more than 50 families and many employees have been there for decades, including bartender Fernando Gomez who began employment at Taix 49 years ago. Nora Garcia told the gathering she started waitressing part-time to put herself through college, assuming she wouldn't be doing it for long, but a decade later, having earned her degree, she's still in the business. Why? She enjoys being part of the hospitality industry, she loves the social environment and the friendships that develop among co-workers and, she said, restaurants are a great place to observe human behavior. Garcia just wishes the job came with health insurance and paid sick days.

Because 89.4% of food service workers do not get paid sick leave (and some report they risk being fired if they take time off without pay), it's no surprise that 58.3% admitted having worked while sick--a clear threat to public health. ROC-LA states that California State Assembly member Fiona Ma is supporting legislation that would mandate sick pay for all workers, including those in food service.

Miachel Taix

Michael Taix

Robert Gottlieb, Director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College and co-author of Food Justice, suggested at Monday's meeting that an establishment's sick pay policy be a factor included when Department of Public Health investigators score and assign the letter grades restaurants are required to post. Michaud, who has done every restaurant job including dishwasher explained he simply works a sick employee's shift himself so that he can afford to pay for sick leave. He also gives workers time off with pay to attend English classes and regrets that not more employees take him up on the offer.

In Los Angeles, 55.2% of food service workers are immigrants and English skills usually make a difference in terms of which positions a worker can fill and how much he or she can earn but lack of fluency alone doesn't explain why people of color are overwhelmingly kept in the most dangerous jobs "behind the kitchen door" and why those jobs are the longest in hours and lowest in pay, while African American women are most likely to be employed, also at low pay, in fast food joints.

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Abusive employment practices were reported by more than 44% of workers, including unpaid overtime, uncompensated hours worked "off the clock," sexual harassment by staff and customers, retaliation for complaining or refusing to give in to sexual demands made by managers, escalating according to Jamie Dolkas, staff attorney with Equal Rights Advocates, as far as sexual assault.

FOC-LA Staff

ROC-LA Staff

Today, food service is one sector of the economy that is expanding and, as Taix said, "These jobs can't be exported. They are inherently local jobs," but they need to be good jobs.

In a region already marked by extreme income inequality--social justice and fairness aside--increased availability of poverty-level wages will hardly fuel an economic recovery while the working poor who must supplement earnings with public assistance or seek medical attention at emergency rooms increase the costs borne by better-off taxpayers.

Realistically, there are limits. McDonald's profits increased during the recession, but most restaurants, Michaud and Taix agreed, are a labor of love. If you treat your workers right, you can still make a profit, but if money were the primary objective, Taix, for one, says he would do a whole lot better flipping the real estate and getting out. But he's not going away.

Neither is ROC United or its affiliates in seven other cities besides LA. Current campaigns include a call for an increase in the minimum wage and protection for the workers' right to unionize. Specific recommendations coming from the Los Angeles office include expansion of bus service, particularly at night, along with lower fares; extension of the city's Living Wage Ordinance to restaurants that contract with the City, are tenants on public land, or receive any public monies or community redevelopment funds.

diane lefer

Diane Lefer

The group, which can be reached at welcomes more input from owners as well as workers, said Mariana Huerta, ROC-LA co-coordinator, so that research, much of it provided now by UCLA's Center for the Study of Urban Poverty, can continue along with efforts "to incentivize the high road to profitability."

"We all have daily interaction with this industry," said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, "but there are people we see and people we don't see."

Don't we all kind of already know that the people behind the kitchen door, hidden from view, don't fare well?

"We must work together," said Saenz, "to change what we have come to accept."

Diane Lefer

Author Spotlight: Diane Lefer