WASHINGTON -- It's been a busy few months at Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a scrappy non-profit that advocates for low-wage restaurant workers. To be more exact, it's been a busy few months trying to shame -- and, in less visible cases, praise -- some of the country's most prominent restaurants.
The New York-based organization released a Zagat-style "Diner's Guide" to the nation's restaurants last fall. But rather than critique the beef carpaccio or lamb rib chops, the guide details working conditions, listing whether workers receive decent pre-tip wages or sick days. Longhorn Steakhouse, among others, received a frowny-face rating, which the group says denotes "alleged illegal practices."
Then, late last month, workers affiliated with the group filed a federal lawsuit against The Capital Grille, accusing the restaurant chain of relegating minority employees to less desirable jobs and shorting workers on wages in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. The lawsuit is part of a broader campaign launched by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United against The Capital Grille's parent owner, Darden Restaurants, whose holdings include Olive Garden, Red Lobster and Longhorn Steakhouse.
Restaurant Opportunities Centers United's "Dignity at Darden" campaign accuses the company and its managers of paying "poverty wages," denying employees paid sick days and requiring them to work during breaks. On a website that all but wags a finger in Darden's face, the group urges the company to "have the courage to be a real leader and lift up industry standards." A Darden spokesman denied the charges, adding that Darden management reached out to the group about specific allegations before the lawsuit was filed, only to be rebuffed.
Restaurant Opportunities Centers United "doesn’t seem to be interested in the facts," said Rich Jeffers, a Darden spokesman. "We believe all the allegations are baseless." Darden employs 180,000 people, and roughly 30 percent of its managers are minorities and 41 percent are women, according to Jeffers.
Saru Jayaraman, a co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Center United, said she stands by the lawsuit and the campaign against Darden. She was quick to add that the problems her group alleges aren't unique to that company.
"It has to do with the industry culture and a lobby that Darden is a big part of, that fights to keep the minimum wage low in an industry of occupational segregation," Jayaraman argued. "Darden is a part of it."
As for the negative publicity her group has been foisting on some restaurants, Jayaraman said it's mostly about raising awareness among consumers rather than employers or workers. The group's members, taking a cue from successful PR campaigns by environmental groups, seem to believe that the best way to change the employment practices inside restaurants is to involve diners.
"The larger campaign is to engage consumers in changing the restaurant industry," Jayaraman said. "Ten years ago, consumers were asking restaurants, 'Is this sustainable food? Is this organically grown?' And the restaurant industry responded. I think the more that consumers ask and require and discuss with restaurants -- What's your lowest paid wage? Do you provide sick days? -- the more they’ll see they need to get ahead of the trend."
The first branch of Restaurant Opportunities Center United was founded after the Sept. 11 attacks to support diaplaced World Trade Center restaurant workers. The group now has branches in eight cities and includes 8,000 workers, having attracted restaurant employees like Kristin Vieira, a former New York server who's named in the lawsuit against The Capital Grille.
"For a server, the money is definitely great, but at a certain point it's not worth the money anymore," Vieira said. "We just felt like they weren’t going to listen to us, and we feel like it could be a great place to work."
Among Restaurant Opportunities Center United's pet issues are the tipped minimum wage and paid sick days. The minimum wage for servers and other workers who receive tips is lower than the normal minimum wage in most states. The current tipped federal rate is $2.13 per hour -- compared with $7.25 for other workers -- although the restaurant is obliged to make up the difference if a server doesn't reach the normal minimum wage after tips. The group has found an ally in Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), who introduced legislation last year that would raise the federal tipped rate.
The National Restaurant Association has been less enthusiastic about the group's campaigns, particularly the diner's guide. "ROC’s purported dining guide is a transparent attempt to disparage many of America’s restaurants, an industry which provides opportunities for millions of Americans to move up the ladder and succeed," Sue Hensley, the group's senior vice president for public affairs, said in a statement. "ROC 'reports' are opinion surveys and not an empirical analysis of the facts.... Even in a challenging economy, the restaurant industry has continued to be one of the country’s leading job creators, and for thousands of individuals -- from all backgrounds -- these jobs lead to management and ownership opportunities."
By winning, say, paid sick days for some workers, Restaurant Opportunities Center United's campaign wouldn’t be the first time public pressure changed workplace policy within the food supply chain. Earlier this month, Trader Joe's signed a "fair food agreement" with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a worker advocacy group of mostly immigrant workers who pick tomatoes and other crops in Florida. Trader Joe's had long resisted signing the agreement, but caved after months of protests outside stores. Taco Bell and McDonald's, among others, had already signed the agreement, which requires grocers and restaurants to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes to help provide better working conditions for pickers.
Worker groups typically encounter strong pushback on these issues from industry lobbies, which often claim that higher wages or paid sick days will raise costs and kill jobs. The restaurant industry in Florida, for instance, is now trying to have the minimum wage for servers lowered there. And the National Restaurant Association poured more than $100,000 into a successful effort to stymie a ballot initiative for paid sick days in Denver.
According to Jayaraman, many of the diners she meets are surprised to learn that the minimum wage for servers is as low as it is, or that some workers can't take a day off when they're sick without losing a day's pay.
"It’s a pervasive argument of the industry, that these are transient jobs and therefore it's OK that people get paid little," Jayaraman said. "We talk to consumers everywhere we go. There's a lack of education. When they find out a large company doesn’t provide paid sick days or pays as little as $2.13, the consumers are outraged."
Of course, plenty of restaurants do offer their workers paid sick days, and plenty also pay more than the bare-legal minimum before tips. Restaurant Opportunities Center United has been trying to draw attention to these eateries, calling them out in their guide as "high-road restaurants." Among them is La Palapa, a casual Mexican joint in New York City whose owner, Barbara Sibley, said she empathizes with the servers, bussers and dishwashers who work for her.
"Restaurant work is hard," Sibley said. "But running a restaurant right is profitable. If I can run a restaurant right and profit, then anyone can."
Flickr photo by gen cartalla.