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Workers group alleges widespread discrimination in restaurants

Restaurant workers of color are said to receive 44% of the earnings taken in by similarly qualified white people.
A waitress looks out the window of a diner in Fort Lee, N.J. (Photo by Kelly Shimoda/Redux)
A waitress looks out the window of a diner in Fort Lee, N.J.

Discrimination against people of color and women pervades the American restaurant industry, according to a new report from the labor group Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United). The group claims that white, male workers disproportionately hold positions of authority in the restaurant industry and that other employees receive lower earnings despite having the same qualifications.

RELATED: Sexual harassment rampant in the restaurant industry

Workers of color are said to receive 44% of the earnings taken in by similarly qualified white people, leading ROC United to suggest there's a 56% "race tax" across the industry. Similarly, women were found to pay an 11% "gender tax." Using a system called matched-pair testing -- in which two auditors of similar qualifications but different ethnic backgrounds apply to the same job vacancy -- ROC United also says it found that white candidates "were more than twice as likely as candidates of color to receive favorable treatment in the interview process."

The industry group National Restaurant Association (NRA) disputed ROC United's findings and accused the group of "using taxpayer dollars to repeatedly attack our industry in an attempt to devalue the opportunity restaurants provide" in a statement provided by e-mail. (The group received a $275,000 grant from the Department of Labor in 2009 and has attracted the negative attention of House Oversight Committee chair Darrell Issa, R-Calif.)

“The restaurant industry embodies the American Dream. Half of all US restaurants are owned or co-owned by women and one-third of restaurant owners are minorities. Restaurants employ more women and minority managers than virtually any other industry," according to the NRA's statement. "Few other industries offer obtainable advancement opportunities to employees of all backgrounds and experience levels.”

But Darrick Hamilton, an associate professor of economics and urban policy at the New School, said ROC United's findings were "highly consistent" with his own research on racial disparities in low-wage work.

"[E]ven after controlling for education, blacks are less likely to be employed in desirable occupational and industry job sectors, and within sectors are less likely to be employed in the desirable jobs," he said over e-mail. "So in this regard the restaurant industry is not unique. The analysis is typically done on race, but there are studies that find a similar phenomenon with gender."

Although traditional racial and gender discrimination may persist across the low-wage economy, ROC United co-director Saru Jayaraman argued its effects are especially pernicious in the restaurant industry. That's because the industry is one of the fastest growing in the country, part of America's transition from a manufacturing based economy to a service sector economy.

"It's the second largest and fastest growing private sector employer in the U.S., and it's the second largest employer of women, immigrants and people of color -- almost every group," she said. Additionally, unlike some other lower-wage industries, the restaurant industry does have some remarkably high-wage workplaces: While someone working at a low end chain restaurant may not make enough to pay the bills, servers and bartenders in up-market venues can do reasonably well for themselves.

"The issue is those livable wage jobs are held almost exclusively by white workers," said Jayaraman.

Part of ROC United's proposed solution is to let restaurant customers informally police racial disparities in hiring. The group already has an "ethical eating" guide, available as an iPhone or Android app, and Jayaraman said they will soon introduce a feature allowing customers to report whether they places they eat seem to have diverse hiring practices. That feature should be available by the end of the year.

"We've had managers tell us pretty openly that they purposefully put white servers on the floor because they believe or they know those servers sell better, and that's in part due to customer discrimination," said Jayaraman. The goal of the new app feature is to provide consumer pressure in the other direction.

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Earlier reports from ROC United have suggested that women in the industry suffer from additional travails beyond wage and hiring disparities. A few weeks ago, the group unveiled research suggesting that sexual harassment is also endemic to the restaurant industry.