Editor’s Note: Tulane University and NolaVie partnered together for Dr. Vicki Mayer’s Public Intellectual 2.0 course. The students interviewed community members, analyzed data and reports, and deconstructed how to foster and enrich public intellectuals in the community. The final projects resulted in articles, videos, and mixed-media designs that articulate the learnings and themes uncovered in the course. NolaVie will be publishing those reports on a weekly basis.
Let’s pretend, for a moment, that you are in a five star restaurant. Look around, who do you see—bussers, waitresses, cooks, runners?
What are their names, genders, and races?
Now, what did you eat?
How was the locally sourced, organically grown, grass-fed steak with a side of whatever vegetable they got from the farmers market that day? Was it as good as your favorite “eat local, sustainable and ethical food” blog said it would be?
Now look back at the staff and think of the words “sustainable” and “ethical.”
Do you see that anywhere else except the food?
Despite the economic crisis of the last decade the restaurant industry continues to grow throughout the country with nearly one in twelve Americans working in the restaurant sector.
While being one of the fastest growing sectors in the new economy it remains the lowest-paying employer in the United States, with a legal minimum tipped wage ranging from $2.13 to $5.00 depending on the state. The proliferation of low paying jobs has been noticed in New Orleans as the restaurant industry here continues to thrive– with over 2,500 food service and drinking places– by the Restaurant Opportunities Center, a “national social-movement organization dedicated to raising wages and working conditions in the nation’s restaurant industry.”
In 2010, the New Orleans Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) wrote a comprehensive report that illustrates the impact of the industry as well as the controversial conditions restaurant workers are subjected to. The report outlines the working conditions, wages, benefits, and so on that contribute to the culture of perpetual racism, sexism, and income inequality in the industry. But despite the disturbing data showcased in the report there are currently ONLY TWELVE New Orleans’ restaurants that have identified to have taken the High Road to Profitability model and acknowledge themselves as RAISE (Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards in Employment) employers.
The New Orleans restaurant industry wage war is not a new narrative, but it consistently overlooks how the tipped wage system contributes to the perpetuation of racism and sexism in the industry.
The New Orleans restaurant industry comprises 58% of the city’s creative economy and provides approximately 44,000 jobs per year– which is more than any other industry within New Orleans.
According to the Living Wage Calculator, created by Dr. Amy K. Glasmeier of MIT, the living wage in Orleans, Parish is $11.08 per hour for one adult (not including children or other family members). However, the median salary of a New Orleans restaurant worker is only $7.76 per hour (if you are lucky) before taxes.
With such low pay the majority of restaurant workers rely on the generosity of customer’s tips to make ends meet. This dynamic puts employees in the crosshairs of having to comply with sexual harassment, verbal abuse, and racism in order to financially support themselves. These situations disproportionately affect minority groups and women who are at a greater risk of being subjected to sexual harassment and discrimination. In fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Center (EEOC) receives the highest amount of sexual-harassment complaints from the restaurant industry than of any other sector within the United States, which is not surprising when two- thirds of tipped workers in America are women. Much of this is due to the lack of action taken by upper management who consider this treatment of workers to be the industry norm, further creating a system that does not condone racism or sexism but instead relies on it to get their employees paid.
A former waiter (who will not be named for anonymity purposes) vividly described the current system as a construction project where “the waiters are all building a house for the restaurant owners, but instead of them paying them for building the house, they invite people to come and watch them build it. The hope for us waiters is that a viewer will like our work enough to pay us for our time because they enjoyed the show.” Therefore the employer is utilizing these workers skills and abilities to make a profit, but yet is not paying them a livable wage; instead the customer is paying them! This is the reality of a faulty disjointed system that has workers crossing their fingers that their tight skirt will be enough to pay their bills that week.
At its core, the perpetuation of these issues in an industry that the city takes so much pride in shows the ignorance towards racism, sexism, and income inequality in which the consumer base is complicit. If we as a population look only to our plates to find sustainable and ethical practices, then we are essentially ignoring an entire workforce that suffers despite the praise and revitalization of our precious tourist industry.