Don’t Just Tip Your Waiter. Demand Equity for Restaurant Workers

A series of reports reveal how poorly employers treat the people who will make your Valentine's dinner so nice.

By Rinku Sen Feb 14, 2011

Valentine’s Day is the restaurant industry’s single biggest sales night of the year. When you’re out with your honey this evening, spare a thought for the people who help to make your evening so perfect. They need your excellent tip, but they also need a minimum wage that keeps up with inflation and that reflects the sector’s enormous growth.

Today, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (I’m proud board member) releases reports at industry summits in D.C., Los Angeles and Miami. The "Behind the Kitchen Door" reports summarize the situation for workers in each city, workers whose national minimum wage has been stuck at $2.13 an hour for 20 years. Also today, Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards reintroduces the WAGES Act to raise the minimum wage for tipped workers to 70 percent of the national standard.

The studies are based on surveys of more than 1,700 workers, and interviews with nearly 100 employers in these cities. They’ve been put together with surveys of 4,300 workers and 240 employers in five other cities–Detroit, New Orleans, Chicago, New York and Portland, Maine–for a national summary as well.

Among the highlights:

• Restaurant workers earn on the average $15,000 per year, about a third of the average for private sector workers in general.

• Nine of 10 workers have no health insurance through their employers.

• More than 60 percent reported working while they were sick, maybe because more than 80 percent have no paid sick days.

• The best jobs are reserved for white workers. The differential in earnings was almost $4.00 per hour between white workers and everyone else.

Oscar Danilo, who joined ROC Miami six months ago, says the report proves that discrimination and abuse in the industry aren’t just problems for a few workers in isolated restaurants. "These problems are inherent in the industry," he said. "There’s no way to deny it or hide it; the facts are right there. The reports give us the backing that we haven’t had before."

And consider this: In each city, ROC found that the employers who repeatedly abused their workers also messed around with the safety of the food itself. Given the industry’s enormity–$515 billion earned in 2007–this is an economic and health crisis that deserves the full attention of our public officials.

Rep. Edwards has been on the job with the WAGES Act. Other members of Congress are joining workers at lobby days in Chicago, Detroit and New York. All those members of Congress who claim to be so concerned about jobs and the economy should sign on immediately–workers should not have to wait another week for their raise. 

So while you’re sharing love today, also encourage your loved ones to demand equity for workers. If you need some material, check out the reports at, or even call into the audio briefing that the Center for Law and Social Policy is hosting today at 2:45-4:00 p.m. EST with Rep. Edwards, restaurant owner Jason Michaud, ROC United Co-Director Saru Jayaraman and Ellen Bravo from Family Values at Work.


As Colorlines’ publisher and the executive director of our parent organization, the Applied Research Center, I spend a lot of time thinking about, talking about and generally engaging around the racial justice movement. We figured it’s time I share that engagement with the Colorlines community, too. So a few times each week, I’ll be using this space to explore issues, people, art and actions that interest me. It’ll be personal, random and relevant. If you have something that you think I’d like, drop me a line at or connect with me on Twitter @ARC_RInkuSen.