Woman server with plateHeading out this Valentine’s Day? Keep restaurant workers’ well-being in-mind.

By Courtney Kishbaugh

Valentine’s Day is the second most popular day to dine out, according to the National Restaurant Association. As couples flock to restaurants all over the country, they should keep in mind that the backhouse realities of the restaurant industry are far from romantic.

It takes a bit of research to know the issues that restaurant workers are handling on the job—like harassment from co-workers, lack of benefits such as paid sick days, and low pay—since they are not evident from within a candle-lit dining room.  But with a bit of information, diners can choose to visit food establishments that value job quality and workers’ well-being.

The restaurant industry can be an especially difficult workplace for women. The combination of high rates of sexual harassment, low wages, and unstable work schedules all disproportionately affect women, and their economic security.

Treatment that would typically incite outrage in many other workplaces is considered the norm in restaurants, and women are suffering for it. Sexual harassment is a huge problem in the restaurant industry. Data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) shows that, in 2011, almost 37 percent of sexual harassment cases reported that year occurred in restaurants, making the restaurant industry the “single largest source of sexual harassment claims.” Speaking from personal experience, I can attest to the fact that actions typically seen as unacceptable in most workplaces are customary in restaurants.

Simultaneously, the majority of people earning the tipped minimum wage is female. (The federal tipped minimum wage is now $2.13 per hour, and tips are supposed to bring the workers at least up to the regular federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.) Women tend to be stuck in lower paying positions in the kitchen or dining room, rather than rising through the ranks to salaried jobs, evidenced by the fact that women fill only 19 percent of the higher paying chef positions. Though the restaurant I worked at was high-end and earning less than the regular minimum wage was never an issue, Women’s eNews reported  that “tipped workers are more likely to fall into poverty than those who receive [the regular] minimum wage,” and that “servers rely on food stamps at nearly double the rate of the general population.”

In addition, though female servers make up the majority in casual dining establishments, a male majority workforce prevails in fine dining. This leads to further income inequality because women are not only stuck in tipped positions, but also prevented from moving into the higher paid bracket of the tipped positions. The proportion of female servers was much lower at a fine dining restaurant I worked in, and very few women worked in the salaried manager or kitchen positions, outside of the dessert and pastry shop.

The industry’s unstable work schedule disproportionately affects women, who often are primary caretakers in their families. Many restaurants stay open until the last customer leaves, while others have hours that go until three in the morning. Child care centers are seldom open at these late hours, leaving women hard-pressed to find adequate child care. Furthermore, last-minute schedule changes, based on customer volume, can make it difficult for women to make arrangements for their family, a situation already made challenging by low pay.

However, these facts should not ruin the prospect of eating out on Valentine’s Day.  Those planning on eating out should consider using the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) dining guide (available either as a PDF or as a free mobile app for smartphones) that details which restaurants pay their workers fairly and provide them with benefits, such as paid sick days. The guide covers a number of restaurants in major cities such as New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

Supporting establishments that treat their workers fairly is a step in the right direction to improve the situation of restaurant staff in general, especially women, by increasing their economic security.

Courtney Kishbaugh is a Research Intern with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and is currently a student at Georgetown University.

To view more of IWPR’s research, visit IWPR.org

IWPR Marks Anniversary of FMLA: Progress Still Needed on Paid Leave

ImageBy Jasmin Griffin

Today marks 20 years since President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 1993, an important policy moment that signified a shift for women in the workforce. Before FMLA, there was little to protect the jobs of women who needed time off to care for newborns or for family members with severe illness. Women would often have to choose between caring for their families and keeping their jobs.

The Family and Medical Leave Act sought to correct these challenges by guaranteeing unpaid leave with job security for workers who needed to care for newborns, newly adopted children, and family members with serious health conditions. Since its passage, the law has had significant impact on the American workforce. Eligible women and men now have time to care for new and existing members of the family, as well as themselves, without being forced to find another job or drop out of the workforce. According to a survey released today by the Department of Labor, FMLA now covers about 59 percent of the workforce.

One of IWPR’s first publications, Unnecessary Losses: Costs to Americans of the Lack of Family and Medical Leave, published in 1990, demonstrated the benefits that the proposed policy would bring IWPR analyzed the costs to American workers of not having unpaid leave for childbirth, personal health needs, or family care giving. With this research, IWPR later testified before the U.S. Senate that, by not recognizing the need for work-life balance, established policies failed to support workers and their families and, moreover, were costly to taxpayers. This finding shifted the public debate on FMLA. Now twenty years old, FMLA has become a cornerstone of U.S. employment law and human resource policy—and remains a major piece of IWPR’s own history.

On May 1, IWPR will celebrate its 25th anniversary of making research count for women. Today, 600 publications and 30,000 pages since Unnecessary Losses, IWPR continues to be a national thought leader on how public policies affect women and their families, focusing on issues ranging from the gender wage gap, occupational segregation and discrimination, access to higher education and job training, retirement security, and the status of women in the states.

While the Family and Medical Leave Act was a major success for working women and their families, there is still more to do to ensure our leave policies address the needs of a modern workforce. Just as it did over two decades ago, IWPR continues to inform the next frontier in paid leave policy, serving as the research backbone of local efforts to adopt state-level paid family and medical leave programs. To date, California and New Jersey have implemented paid family and medical leave programs.

Jasmin Griffin is an intern with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. She is a student at Howard University.

To view more of IWPR’s research, visit IWPR.org