We Asked, You Answered: Working in Restaurants

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Last week, Bill spoke with Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, about the group’s fight for better wages and working conditions for America’s 10 million restaurant workers. At the end of the show, Bill asked viewers to write in and answer this: What’s wrong with the way restaurant workers are treated and compensated? We received hundreds of responses. You can see the full responses on our show page, “your turn” post and Facebook post.

A number of people who either work or had worked as waitstaff wrote to us saying that work in the restaurant industry was extremely tough. Athena Gundlach, who says she has worked as a server for over 20 years, feels some restaurants treat employees well, but most regard them as “disposable gloves.” She adds: “I am expected to be available at any time and get called in on my day off regularly. I have had shifts removed from my schedule with no notice. It’s kind of like shooting craps. I never know if I will make enough money to pay my rent. And, yes I do have a college degree.”

Theresa Storlie calls the industry “one of the most corrupt” in America. “Racism, sexism and sexual assault is not tracked by OSHA … It was so crazy I still have waitressing nightmares and it has been years.”  

When I was a waitress we had to clean the bathrooms and the conditions people left them in were disgusting — though not much more so than knowing a waitress who just cleaned public bathrooms was serving food five minutes later.

Many say they are required to perform additional duties besides waiting tables. Lynn Roach writes: “Restaurants save significantly by having waitstaff do as much work as possible. Not only is that illegal and unethical, it is one of the causes of food contamination and workplace injuries …When I was a waitress we had to clean the bathrooms and the conditions people left them in were disgusting — though not much more so than knowing a waitress who just cleaned public bathrooms was serving food five minutes later.”

We also received responses from people who worked in a variety of positions within the industry. One that stands out is that of Lorre Fleming, who over 34 years worked as a cook, cashier, server, bartender, manager and director.

“As I moved up the food chain, my compensation increased (though not to the level of my male counterparts), while my dissatisfaction plummeted … Restaurant managers, while they usually receive such basic benefits as a week of vacation and the opportunity to purchase group-rate health insurance, don’t fare much better than the average hourly employee. It is not uncommon for restaurant managers to work 60 to 70 hours per week, on their feet 12 to 15 hours a day. And managers, as well as hourly employees, are required to work sick.

Like a number of others, Nicholas Colaizzi Kidd says that cooks and other back of the house staff are underpaid compared to servers. “Hourly yes they make more, but their take home pay is significantly less than what the servers make for many more hours of work. While servers need more legal protection to ensure their employer doesn’t try to exploit them, the tips ensure that they at least make a living wage in most cases. To suggest that they’re only paid an hourly wage of $2-3 an hour is inaccurate at best, disingenuous at worst.” 

Saru Jayaraman: All Work and No Play

Ann McGregor is concerned that if wages increases, meal prices will rise. She writes: “People wouldn’t be able to afford to eat out. Would you be willing to pay $25 for a burger so that people didn’t have to tip?”

But whiskeytangofox says that in Washington food prices are not higher than in other states, even though the base wage for waitstaff is $9.32 an hour, before tips. “This idea that paying waitstaff a decent wage is going to cause service to suffer is wrong. In Washington State where I live, restaurants aren’t any more expensive here than they are anywhere else, and the waitstaff service level doesn’t suffer at all.”

Reina Wong points out that in Europe the system is very different. “When we were in France a few years ago, the waiter was quite offended when we tried to tip him. He was very proud of the fact that he earned a living wage, plus benefits, and therefore did not need the ‘hand out’ from customers. He said that he loved his job, and he was very satisfied with his employer.”

This word of warning comes from Tico S. Francisco, who says he has worked in the industry most of his adult life. “I can say without hesitation that most restaurant owners, corporate or family, are complete thieves and criminals. I love food, but please tell your children not to do this work. You will wind up with nothing except a propensity to drink too much.”

Sandy Palmer advises people to leave cash tips. “Customers often don’t realize that when they include the tip on a credit card charge the waitress has to pay a percentage of that to cover the processing fee charged by the credit card company. Where I worked it was three percent.”

And Mary Whisler Maxwell sounds like the kind of customer that most servers would love. “When my husband and I go out, we always tip above 20 percent. The other thing is respect; Saying ‘thank you’ when the server comes to the table doesn’t cost you anything. They appreciate and deserve that. It’s a matter of human decency. Be kind and friendly to them!”


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