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Behind the Kitchen Door: The Highs and Lows of Seattle’s Booming Restaurant Economy

Restaurant Opportunities Center of Seattle’s latest report is the most comprehensive examination to date of the Seattle-area restaurant industry. The report draws on 524 worker surveys and 15 structured interviews with restaurant workers in King County, along with other industry and government data. It offers a vivid portrait of the state of the industry, and makes recommendations that will improve Seattle’s economic development, public health, as well as workplace conditions for the city’s restaurant workers.

Our research demonstrates that although the industry holds great potential in the wake of positive steps taken by legislators and high-road employers, major areas for improvement remain. Many restaurant jobs in the Seattle area are low-road jobs characterized by few benefits, low wages, and poor workplace conditions. Our report also unearths a range of serious problems related to the availability of benefits, hiring and promotion practices, workplace discrimination, and job-specific training opportunities.

Key findings include:

  • Despite promising steps to ensure higher wages, far too many low-wage restaurant employees are still not feeling the effects; 42.7% reported earning poverty wages. And despite a law requiring paid sick leave, only 37.4% of restaurant workers in Seattle are aware of the law and 73.5% report that they don’t have access to paid sick leave.

  • The vast majority of Seattle’s restaurant workers do not receive workplace benefits such as employer-provided health coverage (87.7%). In fact, 28.4% do not have any form of health insurance coverage at all, and 11.4% report having gone to the emergency room without being able to pay in the past year.

  • Seattle’s restaurant industry is anything but a level playing field for people of color and women. 56.7% of Asian workers, 59.8% of Black workers, and 77.4% of Latino workers worked in the Back of the House, compared to 47.8% of white workers. Furthermore, 38% of Front-of-the-House positions are occupied by workers of color, compared to 57.3% of Back-of-the-House positions. Women make up 22.6% of fine dining positions, compared to 57.2% of casual full-service restaurant occupations.

The report also offers possible solutions specific to policymakers, employers, customers, and workers, including:

  • For workers: Policymakers must strengthen and enforce employment laws in the restaurant industry that raise the tipped minimum wage, provide affordable access to health care, and protect workers from discrimination, harassment, and erratic scheduling. Policymakers should also increase awareness and understanding of those laws, support job training programs, and publicly support collective organizing among restaurant workers.

  • For employers: Adopt systematic and fair hiring, promotions, and scheduling practices, increase wages, and clearly communicate to workers about their benefits, as well as anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies and procedures.

  • For customers: Support responsible restaurant owners who provide fair wages, benefits, and opportunities for workers to advance, and speak to employers every time you eat out and let them know you care about livable wages, benefits, and opportunities for women and people of color to advance in the restaurant industry.

Seattle has made tremendous strides toward improving working conditions for low-wage workers by enacting laws that require employers to offer paid leave, setting limits on the use of conviction and arrest records in hiring, and raising the minimum wage towards a living wage. However, there is clearly far more work to be done. We hope this report can help guide employers toward the High Road of sustainability, and legislators toward policies that ensure dignity and fairness for the city’s restaurant workers. ROC-Seattle stands ready and willing to act as a resource through every step of that process.

Find the full report here.