By Rick Paulas
Cross-posted from KCET Food

In her new book “Behind the Kitchen Door,” Saru Jayaraman takes readers through a horrific landscape that will change the way you eat. But whereas most of the foodie movement is worried about the actual contents itself, Jayaraman’s focus is on an equally-important, yet much less-represented, side of the industry: The people preparing your food.

The statistics alone are damning: 10 million people work in America’s restaurant industry, making it the largest workforce in the country. Yet since 1996, the national minimum wage for tipped workers has been frozen at $2.13 an hour. Combine this barely-livable wage with a lack of paid sick days and it makes sense why many workers are forced to head into restaurants and prepare your food while being sick themselves.

In advance of speaking engagements in L.A. — March 12th and April 20th at the UCLA Labor Center; check out the site closer to the event for more details — Saru spent a few minutes on the phone with me talking about what’s gone wrong in the fight for food workers rights, how to fix it, and why it matters so much to us all.

Why does the exploitation of food workers matter to consumers?

Saru Jayaraman: It’s neck and neck with retail as the largest and fastest growing sector of the U.S. economy. And, unfortunately, also happens to be the lowest paying sector of the economy. Seven of the ten lowest paying jobs in America, and the absolute two lowest paying jobs, are in the restaurant industry. Which means you have the largest and fastest growing sector of the economy proliferating the lowest paying jobs. The reason it’s the lowest paying is the National Restaurant Association. They struck a deal with Congress back in 1996 to make sure the minimum wage for tipped workers stays frozen forever at $2.13 an hour. So, that’s setting the floor for the whole economy at $2.13 an hour.

But on the health side, it’s really important for anyone who cares about their health or the quality of food to pay attention to these issues. There’s a few stories in my book where workers who are too poor to take a day off from work when they’re sick. And since they don’t have paid sick days, it compounds the issue because you got sick workers cooking and preparing your food. Not because they choose to, but because that’s the position the industry puts them in. When you have a wage that’s not a living wage at all, when you have a paycheck that says “this is not a paycheck” literally because the wages go to taxes completely, when you’re completely reliant on customer tips to live, you end up having to go to work when you have the flu or H1N1.

How does President Obama’s attempt to raise the minimum wage affect restaurant workers?

Saru: The policy blueprint that the White House put out included tipped workers, so that’s helpful. But here’s what happened: The minimum wage and the tipped minimum wage rose together until 1996 when Herman Cain, then the head of the National Restaurant Association, struck a deal with Congress to de-link the two — the minimum wage will continue to rise, but the minimum wage for tipped workers will be frozen. So we’ve been fighting for the last several years to get them re-linked. The regular minimum wage impacts restaurant workers as well because the restaurant industry is the largest employer of minimum wage in the U.S., both at the regular and at the tipped level. So even if tipped workers didn’t go up, raising the minimum wage alone would help millions of restaurant workers in America. But leaving the tipped people out, as has been done over the last decades, severely hurts and leaves in poverty millions of tipped restaurant workers. We need both to go up.

Despite the foodie movement taking over restaurant culture in the past decade, why have workers been left behind?

Saru: We’ve made tremendous strides in changing that over the last couple of years. But the food movement itself is fairly new. It really exploded with the publication of Eric Schlosser’s book “Fast Food Nation” and Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the movie “Food Inc.,” and you saw this very organic, no pun intended, movement of consumers going out and asking every time they ate out, “Is this locally sourced? Is this organic?” And then restaurants responding and changing their menu items. We think the same is very, very possible for restaurant workers, in terms of working conditions. It’s just that people who’ve read those books don’t know anything about those workers. And that’s the point of this book, to educate people about what’s behind the kitchen door. If you care about your health, if you care about locally-sourced and sustainable, you can’t just care about the cows and the pigs and how they’re treated. You have to care about the people touching your food.

Do you think there’s a racial element to the exploitation of food workers, especially in regards to their immigration status?

Saru: Definitely, and it’s not just related to immigration status. Restaurant workers are black, white, immigrants, and not just immigrants from Latin America but all over the world. So there’s both racial injustice and an immigration issue happening in the industry. There’s a wage gap of four dollars between white workers and workers of color in the restaurant industry. We’ve done studies to show that the best-paying jobs in the industry — and there are some good-paying jobs — are held almost exclusively by white workers. Fine dining wait staffs and bartending positions, which earn the highest tips in the industry, are held exclusively by white workers. In fact, we did a study where we sent out 200 pairs of white and people of color into fine dining restaurants as applicants, the person of color having the better resume, and found that there was twice the chance of the white worker getting one of those jobs. And that was entirely due to race. Even when the person of color didn’t have an accent, or any question of immigration status, they still had half the chance of a white worker. So, the primary issue is race, and race across the board. The color of skin has a huge impact on people’s wages and their ability to move up.

Immigration does play a role, for sure, especially in urban areas. We estimate that 75% of workers in cities like L.A. and New York are foreign-born and about 40% of workers in the whole industry are undocumented. So, if almost half of the workers in these cities are undocumented, certainly immigration reform is an important issue for these workers. But in our opinion it has to be immigration reform to allow workers the opportunity to speak up when they’re being mistreated or else it’s just going to continue to be this dual-status, under-the-shadows system where people feel very afraid to speak up when they’re being exploited. And that, ultimately, drives down wages and commissions for everyone in the industry.

Food Workers | Photo: pfhyper/Flickr/Creative Commons License

How do California, and L.A. specifically, fit in regards to food workers rights?

Saru: In terms of wages, California’s definitely better than most because the minimum wage for tipped workers is the same as for other workers. California is one of seven states that doesn’t have a lower minimum wage for tipped workers. Everyone receives a minimum of eight dollars across the board. However the restaurant industry is still the lowest paying employer in L.A., just as it is in other states where the minimum wage for tipped workers in lower. So, unfortunately the incredibly low wages in the industry is a national phenomenon and includes L.A. and California, despite the fact that California has a higher minimum wage for tipped workers. They’re certainly doing better than other states, but we still have a long way to go.

L.A. is actually the largest restaurant industry in the country, larger than New York. There’s almost 300,000 workers in L.A. county. It’s huge and growing really rapidly, and still plagued by low wages, poverty wages, lack of benefits like paid sick days. San Francisco, for example, was the first place in the United States to require all employers are required to offer paid sick days to their employees. The restaurant workers got together in San Francisco and demanded that law be passed. Our organization is fighting to get paid sick days for workers in L.A., but by not having it passed yet it means workers go to work sick. In fact, our reports of several hundred restaurant workers show that two-thirds have prepared food while ill. So, unfortunately L.A. does have those problems.

Now, L.A. also has some great employers that are doing it right. We put out a local diner’s guide highlighting great employers in L.A. One of them is profiled in my book in Chapter Two, a woman named Diep Tran, who owns the Good Girl Dinette, which is a Vietnamese restaurant in Highland Park. She’s a great employer. Jason Michaud is the owner of Red Hill and Local, and he’s a fabulous employer who provides paid sick days. Chaya Restaurants are great employers. So there’s some really great employers in L.A., it’s just that unfortunately the vast majority still provide poverty wages and no benefits.

What steps can the average restaurant-goer make to help workers?

Saru: There’s three things we’re asking everyone to do as consumers. One is help build the buzz around the book. As I mentioned, books like “Fast Food Nation” and “Omnivore’s Dilemma” really changed the face of the industry with regard to local and organic. So if we can build a buzz around this book, we feel we will get that attention. Number two is we’ve created a new consumer organization called The Welcome Table that houses the book and a series of films that Danny Glover’s movie company is creating about the workers and employers profiled in the book. So, the second thing we’re asking is for people to join The Welcome Table to collectivize our voices as eaters throughout the country, to demand of our local city council and federal legislators that we need change in this industry.

The third thing we’re asking of people is to speak up every time they eat out. In the back of the diner’s guide there are tip cards that people can hand to the manager or owner at the end of your meal. In the smartphone app we’ve created there are tweets people can tweet to the manager or owner at the end of your meal. What we’re asking of people is please don’t just tip better. Tipping better is great, but it cannot be the only thing that we do to change this industry because we need this industry to change systematically, not just tipping one worker better. So at the end of every meal, go up to the restaurant owner and, if they’re in the guide, you know, say that you love the meal, love the service, but you notice in this guide they don’t provide paid sick days and as a customer that’s really important to you. Or at the end of the meal, say you see in the guide they do provide paid sick days, they pay well, and you just want to say you really support that as a consumer. And if they’re not in the guide, say you want them to know about it, that it keeps track of all these issues, and you want them to know it’s something you care about, as a consumer that information is important to you because it impacts your own health. So, just like we previously communicated with them that we wanted organic produce and meats in our restaurants, in the same way we need to communicate our values at the end of every meal and say we really want these workers to be paid a decent wage.

Eat better by following KCET Food on FacebookTwitter, and Tumblr.