Are You Actually Eating Ethically?

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 “sustainable” or “ethical” practices anywhere else except the food?

You don’t?

Not surprising.

Despite the economic crisis of the last decade, the restaurant industry continues to grow throughout the country with nearly 1 in 12 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—and the workers continue to suffer by holding six of the 10 lowest paying jobs in the city.

The New Orleans restaurant industry is the largest private employer within the city and makes up 58 percent of the city’s creative economy by providing roughly 64,000 jobs per year- Office of Cultural Economy. These jobs are held by primarily marginalized groups, including women, youth, immigrants, and people of color. Although consumers may be desensitized to the realities of restaurant work, the systemic issues that sustain the minimum wage laws and working environments are rooted in racism, sexism, and income inequality. In fact, the practice of tipping can be traced back to the slave industry.

As Saru Jayaraman explains in her book Behind the Kitchen Door, when Americans traveled to Europe in the 1850s they frequently stayed at hotels and dined at restaurants that practiced tipping. When the Americans would return home they would boast about how they had adopted European culture and began to tip workers. Overall, origins of tipping are “noblesse oblige,” but in America there was a racial aspect of the practice. This is because the majority of workers who earned tips in that era were almost exclusively newly freed black slaves. American employers were able to hire them at next to nothing and rely on customers to supplement their wages via tips, which is a narrative similar to the modern tipped wage system. Europe eventually did away with the tipping system because the workers there considered it an insult to their craft, but Americans obviously did not.

It wasn’t until 1966 when the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was passed that the tipped wage system found itself under the scrutiny of the U.S. government. The FLSA decoupled tipped wage from regular minimum wage, and while the minimum wage increased, the wage of tipped workers remained at $2.13. In 1966 this made the tipped minimum wage roughly 50% of the regular minimum wage ($5.00 at the time), but because of inflation as of 2016 it was a mere 29.5% of the regular minimum wage ($7.25). Additionally, the FLSA established “tip credit,” meaning that if a worker does not make enough in tips to bring their regular rate of pay up to the minimum wage, then the employer has to supplement the remaining difference. Although the “tip credit” may seem good in theory, with the gap between the tipped minimum wage and the regular minimum wage increasing, employees have to rely more and more on customers to supplement their pay. Allegretto and Cooper explain in their report, “Twenty-Three Years and Still Waiting for Change,” this reliance exposes them to wage theft and purposeful miscalculation of worked hours by their employers.

The National Restaurant Association – “the other NRA”- has been successful in lobbying for the pay rate to remain $2.13 since 1991 (Jayaraman). According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, a single New Orleans resident would have to make $10.77 per hour or $22,407 annually in order to fully support themselves. However, in New Orleans, servers make on average $18,550 annually. Imagine that you are a woman with two kids, and you make $2.13 an hour working in the French Quarter at a restaurant just off of Bourbon Street. You know that in order to make ends meet that you will have to flirt a little, make the tourists feel at home, and maybe wear a tighter skirt to get them to really tip you enough to cover the month’s expenses. You persevere because that lingering, that tight skirt, that drunken bachelor party is your rent, your energy bill, and your children’s daycare services. Women, who make up 52% of the workforce, are three times more likely to be paid below the poverty line then the general workforce and twice as likely to need food stamps as the general population. They are also five times more likely to experience sexual harassment. So, not surprisingly, the Restaurant Opportunities Center reported that the restaurant industry is the single largest source of sexual harassment complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Center (EEOC) of any industry within the United States.

As consumers, it is crucial to understand the landscape of an industry that is so integral to the New Orleans economy and culture. The ways in which we as consumers are complicit in the tipped wage system only perpetuates the systemic issues that affect the entire workforce. That being said, it is not just about the lack of tipping or the choice to stay in for dinner. Consumers drive the industry and it is important to be an active participant in eating at restaurants that follow sustainable business practices. By re-directing our dollars in a purposeful and meaningful way we can show that the treatment of workers matters. When you go out to eat, make it a point to ask servers how they like working there and communicate to managers about how the worker’s conditions are an essential reason as to why you will return to their establishment. Overall, if we as a community look only to our plates to find sustainable and ethical practices, we will ignore a large portion of our city that suffers despite the praise and revitalization of our precious creative economy.