Photos Courtesy of ROC United

Today, nearly half of every food dollar spent in the U.S. goes to the restaurant industry, a share that has nearly doubled over the last 60 years.[1] When we eat out, few of us think about the people who make these establishments function. We are often only peripherally aware of wait staff, and perhaps never come into contact with the dishwashers and line cooks working behind the scenes. Restaurant workers are often left out of discussions about food justice, a major oversight considering that there are more than 13 million of them in the U.S. alone—nearly 1 of every 10 workers in the country.[2]

As a result, employment practices in the restaurant industry have a big impact.

Unfortunately, this impact is on the whole a negative one.

About the Workers

Restaurant staff are divided into two groups. “Front of house” workers interact with guests and include servers and bussers. Those in the “back of the house” are much less visible, and include chefs, line workers, and dishwashers.

The practice of tipping front of house staff creates a unique rift. As a result, who works where is one of the major sources of injustice in the industry. Front of house staff are primarily white, while black and brown and immigrants hold a disproportionate number of the lowest-paid positions in the back of the house.[3] In addition to the economic disparities that this creates, it is also worth asking what it says about the types of faces that employers want visible on the front lines of their companies.

Nature of the Work

Restaurant work tends to be fast-paced, stressful, repetitive, and physically taxing. Working extra hours is common, but overtime often goes unpaid.[4] Increasingly, restaurants are choosing to employ workers on a part-time or temporary basis to avoid paying for benefits, and turnover is high.[5]

While maintaining a high rate of turnover is actually costly for employers, it is standard in the industry[4], and prevents workers from feeling secure in their jobs. The lack of job security also discourages workers from speaking up about working conditions and is a source of stress in itself.

Adding to this stress is an ironic fact: like the farm workers who provide much of our food, restaurant workers are likely to be food insecure themselves.[6]

Even as many workers try to fill shifts and provide for themselves and their families, schedules are erratic and often change at the last minute, with shifts at unusual times or late at night. This, in turn, is a problem for mothers, and especially single mothers, as it makes it difficult for them to find appropriate childcare.[7]

Along with other barriers like expense and lack of reliable transportation, scheduling issues force many mothers to rely on family members or friends to watch their children. Unfortunately, these informal settings do not always provide the stimulation that kids need, and this lack of enrichment at an early age has been linked to comparatively negative outcomes later in life that help to maintain the cycle of poverty. Furthermore, their inability to work extra hours or switch shifts on short notice often prevents mothers from climbing the ranks to a higher-paid position.[7]

Women working in restaurants face special challenges. Since they make up 66% of the tipped workforce in the industry, they bear the brunt of the tipped minimum wage’s economic disadvantage.[8]

Servers, the vast majority of whom are women, are nearly three times more likely to live below the poverty line than the average worker.[9] In contrast, women are underrepresented in the highest echelons of the restaurant industry: 93% of chefs are male.[10]

Black and brown woman and female immigrants face even lower average wages,[8] and the restaurant industry is the single largest source of sexual harassment charges filed by women.[11]

Another source of injustice in the restaurant industry is its dependence on undocumented workers. Because of their desperate circumstances, these workers are more likely to accept poorly paid and otherwise undesirable positions. Undocumented workers are extremely vulnerable to unfair treatment, since their employers can report them to the government if they raise concerns or attempt to improve working conditions.[4] They also deal with the psychological impact of living in constant fear and vigilance, and face discrimination in the form of racism as well as anti-immigration attitudes.[12] While undocumented workers are often misrepresented as a drain on the U.S. economy, the reality is that they pay into government systems through taxes and withholdings, but because of their status are unable to receive tax breaks or benefit from social assistance programs.[4]

Restaurant workers are at risk of numerous workplace injuries including slips, cuts, and burns.[13] In addition, they are exposed to extreme temperatures, especially indoor heat.[14] Despite these hazards, employees do not always receive safety training, and if they are injured, they may not have access to the treatment that they need.[14] Workers who lack paid sick days often cannot afford to take time off and must go into work while ill, posing a threat to their well-being as well as to public health. Their lack of health insurance forces many restaurant workers to depend on emergency rooms in lieu of a family doctor. By failing to provide benefits like these, restaurant owners offload their responsibilities onto taxpayers who, through their support of public services and assistance programs, effectively pay for benefits in the employers’ stead.

Wages and Benefits

Restaurant workers have the lowest reported wages of any occupation tracked by the United States Department of Labor[15], and food system workers are twice as likely to use food stamps as the rest of the population.[14]

Subsisting on minimum wage is enough to put many families under the poverty line, but wage theft—that is, the deliberate withholding of wages from workers—is a common problem for both tipped and non-tipped workers.[14] Tipped workers are especially vulnerable. Federally, the minimum wage for tipped workers is a mere $2.13 per hour. Employers are required by law to make up the difference if this base wage plus a worker’s tips fail to meet or exceed the standard federal minimum wage of $7.25.[16] In practice, however, this requirement is difficult to enforce. The temptation for employers to disregard the law has only grown over the past two decades, which have seen no change in the tipped minimum wage despite increases (however small and insufficient) in the minimum for non-tipped workers. As a result, the gulf between the two wages is greater than ever. Moreover, inflation has decreased the value of the tipped minimum wage by 40 percent since its establishment in 1991.[9]

Raising or eliminating this sub-minimum wage not only benefits workers, but has even increased sales and employment levels in the restaurant industry in those states that have already moved towards a fairer rate.[17]

Increasing the federal minimum wage would also make a big impact on the restaurant industry, which holds such a large percentage of the minimum wage jobs in the U.S.[18]

Furthermore, because women are more likely than men to work minimum wage jobs in this industry and others, raising the federal minimum wage would also contribute substantially to closing the gender wage gap.[9]


Food Empowerment Project supports any and all efforts to raise the minimum wage for all workers. Increases in pay for workers not only mean a greater quality of life, but also an increased ability to afford healthier foods.

We can help in small ways: If you are out eating vegan food at a restaurant, ask if they split tips. If they do, increase the amount of tip you leave. And always ask if they share tips with the dishwashers and other workers in the back of the house; if not, give them a separate tip.


[1] National Restaurant Association. (2014a). 2014 Facts at a Glance. Retrieved from (2/13/14)

[2] National Restaurant Association. (2014b). 2014 Restaurant Industry Pocket Factbook. Retrieved from (2/13/14)

[3] Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York and The New York City Restaurant Industry Coalition. (2009). The Great Service Divide: Occupational Segregation and Inequality in the New York City Restaurant Industry. ROC-NY. Retrieved from (2/13/14)

[4] Woolever, Laurie. (2012). High-End Food, Low-Wage Labor. Dissent Magazine. Retrieved from (6/7/14)

[5] Food Chain Workers Alliance. (2012). The Hands that Feed Us: Challenges and Opportunities for Workers Along the Food Chain. Retrieved from (2/13/14)

[6] Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, The Food Chain Workers Alliance, The Restaurant Opportunities Centers of the Bay and New York. Food Insecurity of Restaurant Workers. 2014. (1/16/19)

[7] Restaurant Opportunities Center et al. (2013). The Third Shift: Child Care Needs and Access for Working Mothers in Restaurants. ROC-United. Retrieved from (2/13/14)

[8] Restaurant Opportunities Centers United et al. Tipped Over the Edge: Gender Inequity in the Restaurant Industry. (2012). ROC United. Retrieved from (2/13/14)

[9] National Economic Council, Council of Economic Advisers, Domestic Policy Council, Department of Labor. (2014). “The Impact of Raising the Minimum Wage on Women and the Importance of Ensuring a Robust Tipped Minimum Wage. Obama White House Archives. Retrieved from (9/4/17)

[10] Matchar, Emily. (2013). Is Michael Pollan a Sexist Pig? Salon. Retrieved from (3/31/14)

[11] Restaurant Opportunities Center United. (2014) Living Off Tips and Sexual Harassment. Retrieved from (accessed 8/9/14)

[12] Fortuna, L.R., Porche, M.V. (2013). Clinical Issues and Challenges in Treating Undocumented Immigrants. Psychiatric Times. Retrieved from (6/7/14)

[13] Filiaggi, A. J., and Courtney, T. K. (2003). Restaurant Hazards. Professional Safety, 48(5), 18-23.

[14] Food Chain Workers Alliance. (2012). The Hands that Feed Us: Challenges and Opportunities for Workers Along the Food Chain. Retrieved from (2/13/14)

[15] Bureau of Labor Statistics (2012). May 2011 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates by Ownsership. United States Department of Labor. Retrieved from (6/7/14)

[16] Wages. United States Department of Labor. Retrieved from (6/7/14)

[17] Restaurant Opportunities Center United. (2014). Fact Sheet: The Impact of raising the Subminimum Wage on Restaurant Sales and Employment. Retrieved from (8/7/14)

[18] Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2013). Minimum Wage Workers Account for 4.7 Percent of Hourly Paid Workers in 2012. The Editor’s Desk. United States Department of Labor. Retrieved from (6/7/14)