Every time I give a talk that includes the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, whose board of directors I serve on, people ask me how they can figure out which restaurants treat their workers well and badly, so they can figure out the best places to patronize. Sadly, Zagat’s doesn’t include labor practices in its rating system. Now, just in time for your holiday family outings, ROC United has released the first and long-awaited national Diners’ Guide to help you make those choices.
The Guide evaluates more than 150 popular restaurants and chains nationwide against 3 criteria: provision of paid sick days, wages of at least $9 per hour for non-tipped workers and $5 per hour of tipped workers, and opportunities for internal advancement.
These are good criteria. I don’t want a sick person handling my food, nor do I want them to lose wages or jobs because they’re sick. The minimum wage for tipped workers has remained at a measly $2.13 per hour for nearly 20 years, so every day consumers have to push for a higher standard since Congress won’t. And finally, racial and gender hierarchies are a fact of life in the restaurant industry, with white men getting the best paying jobs at the front of the house. Across the country, ROC United has found that a system that enables internal promotion so that back of the house workers can get access to front of the house jobs, is a key element of restaurants that don’t discriminate.
The Guide goes further than telling you where to go. Since it doesn’t cover absolutely every one of the millions of restaurants in this country, ROC United asks diners to simply take a look around and ask a few questions when they eat out. Just opening our eyes will tell us who works where. Are all the waiters white? Are all the bussers Latinos? Are there no black people or women anywhere? It isn’t difficult to ask your waiter what his hourly wages are. And if the restaurant doesn’t meet the standards listed above, there are tear out cards in the back of the guide that you can leave with management to let them know where they can get help to do better.
One set of restaurants you might do this with is highlighted in the guide directly.
The Darden Group owns and operates nearly 2,000 restaurants nationwide, including Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and LongHorn Steakhouse. ROC-D.C. has identified a pattern of racial discrimination against black workers in particular, which is partly upheld by the lack of internal promotion systems. But its most famous restaurant is the high-end Capital Grille Steakhouse, where black workers say they are routinely told they don’t “meet the standards,” no matter how much serving experience they have.
Industry wide, black workers have a particularly tough time getting work in table-service restaurants. The industry has relegated them to fast food. With black unemployment at record levels—16 percent nationally, well over 20 percent in many cities—ROC’s campaign is an urgently important intervention.
Ironically, the CEO of the Darden Group is Clarence Otis, Jr.—a highly-awarded African American businessman who used to work for J.P. Morgan. I have no doubt that Otis’ race will feature prominently in Darden’s defense against ROC’s findings, but of course the issue is not his identity or even his intention, but rather the actual impact of the company’s employment practices.
You can get your copy of the guide at ROC United’s website. May your eating out be flavored with justice this holiday season.