On April 14, members of ROC United, the nation’s largest restaurant workers’ organization, gathered for a late-night session at their Washington office. The group was strategizing for the next day’s counter-lobbying activities, its first head-to–head battle on the Hill against the National Restaurant Association, one of Washington’s largest yet unknown interest groups. Referring to itself infelicitously as the NRA, the association claims more than 380,000 member businesses. Although it supports Democrats on issues like job creation and immigration reform, the NRA is staunchly opposed to government regulation and recently threw its weight behind big-business fights against the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) and healthcare reform.
In April its members assembled in Washington for their annual conference and lobbying blitz. In the NRA’s cross hairs were two bills that would guarantee sick days for all workers and raise the minimum wage for tipped workers. ROC (Restaurant Opportunities Center) United—founded in New York in 2001 and with a national membership of more than 5,000 servers, busers and other restaurant workers—supports both measures.
As ROC’s after-hours meeting began, a woman dressed in sleek corporate attire and wearing a large red-white-and-blue NRA name tag, burst into the room and spilled a mess of documents on the conference table. She had just come from a series of NRA tactical meetings, and the documents she had acquired detailed the NRA’s lobbying strategy—both long-term and for the following day, when its immense team of at least 500 NRA members would lobby more than 250 Congressional offices. The badge bearer, Bonnie Kwon, was an employee at ROC. The NRA had been infiltrated.
Labor researchers say the restaurant business—America’s largest private employer, with some 13 million workers—has become one of the economy’s most rogue sectors of employment. With laws that are inadequate and unenforced, the industry sees widespread wage theft and overtime violations. Restaurant workers across the country report being paid less than the national minimum wage, sometimes even after working overtime. At the core of the problem is the tipping system, which gives the sector nonstandard pay arrangements, making it easier for employers to break rules. Take, for example, the hundreds of employees of the Cheesecake Factory, who have reported wage theft as well as overtime and meal-break violations to ROC and other restaurant associations, and the 100-plus workers who have suffered the same treatment in addition to frequent sexual harassment at the Florida restaurant chain Daisy Dukes.
"In other industries, violations are mainly underground and hidden, but in the restaurant industry they’ve become so prevalent that they’re now common practice," says Annette Bernhardt, policy co-director at the National Employment Law Project (NELP). "The industry has come to the stage where obeying things like overtime pay is purely voluntary."
While the national minimum wage has risen incrementally, the minimum wage of tipped restaurant workers remains at its 1991 level of $2.13 an hour. The industry ranks among the lowest in offering employees paid sick days and benefits, and the use of undocumented immigrant workers is endemic. And while SEIU and UNITE-HERE represent food service workers in large institutions with cafeterias—like airports, hotels and colleges—workers in private restaurants have virtually no union representation.
What’s more, the great recession may be worsening the problem. "Since the recession, tips as a composition of restaurant workers’ income have fallen," says Nik Theodore, director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois, Chicago. "There is evidence that restaurant workers are feeling in their own pocketbooks the financial anxiety of customers." Whereas most financially pinched businesses lay off workers rather than reduce wages, restaurants appear to do the opposite: retain workers but reduce salaries. The tipping system facilitates this by automatically cutting wages as cash-strapped customers tip less.