A recent analysis from U.S. News and World Report reveals that 7 of the 10 lowest paying jobs in America are in the food industry, citing 2012 data from the Department of Labor.
They include, before taxes, combined food preparation and serving workers ($18,720 a year); fast food cooks ($18,780); dishwashers ($18,930); counter attendants at cafeterias, food concessions and coffee shops ($19,430); hosts and hostesses at restaurants, lounges and coffee shops ($19,570); dining room, and cafeteria attendants and bartender helpers ($19,690); and farm workers and laborers ($19,990).
But placement of food workers on the lowest rung of earners nationwide is hardly new, said Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United co-director and co-founder Saru Jayaraman.
"This has been true for the last three or four years," Jayaraman explained in an interview with The Huffington Post. The United States restaurant industry's roughly 10 million workers put it among the largest private sector employers in the U.S. and the fastest growing. It's also the largest employer of minimum wage workers. "Basically, we're growing the economy with the lowest paid jobs."
Workers in the restaurant industry weren't always so meagerly compensated. In the 1970s, about 80 percent of the work force was unionized in cities like San Francisco and New York, according to Jayaraman, which helped protect workers' interests. In the 1960s and 70s, restaurant industry jobs were "comparable to other good jobs, like factory jobs."
Jayaraman points to the National Restaurant Association as the reason behind the shift. The group, she said, lobbies to keep the minimum wage low. For the last 22 years, minimum wage for tipped workers has been stuck at $2.13. The federal minimum wage for untipped workers is currently at $7.25.
"The industry argues it's because profit margins are so low," Jayaraman explained, but "it's not necessary to pay your workers very poor wages to be profitable." By ROC United's calculations, profit margins in the restaurant industry are 4 to 5 percent. That's far greater than profits of other companies, like Walmart, which posts 1 percent margins.
Earlier this year, opponents to raising the federal minimum wage expressed concern over potential legislation that would raise it to a rate of $10.10 an hour. Among them was Auntie Anne’s Pretzels and Cinnabon brands franchisee Melvin “Mel” Sickler, who testified at a U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on the matter. The move, Sickler said, would prove detrimental to his business:
“At a time when many businesses are struggling to keep their doors open, mandating wage increases will only hurt those employees which this proposal seeks to help,” he said. “In my home state of Connecticut, where we already have the fourth-highest minimum wage at $8.25 and one of the highest tipped wages at $5.69, there is currently a proposal in the state legislature that seeks to increase the minimum wage to $9.75 and the tipped wage to $6.73. That, along with the recently enacted mandatory paid sick leave law, is making an already difficult situation even worse. Add to that the Affordable Care Act, and I ask anyone here to explain how … the restaurant industry, which is labor heavy and runs on extremely low profit margins, will survive let alone prosper?”
Companies like Costco, however, have advocated raising the federal minimum wage. "At Costco, we know that paying employees good wages makes good sense for business," said CEO and President Craig Jelinek in a statement earlier this year. "We pay a starting hourly wage of $11.50 in all states where we do business, and we are still able to keep our overhead costs low."
Low wages have resulted in restaurant workers being three times more likely to live in poverty and twice as likely to use public assistance compared to the regular population, Jayaraman said. At many restaurants nationwide, "there's at least one person who is homeless or verging on homeless, or sleeping on someone's couch."
Moreover, workers often feel they can't afford to take days off when they're sick. "You end up with people working with the flu," she continued. "Its a public health crisis."
Jayaraman and other groups support the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, which seeks to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and allow for adjustments after inflation. The bill, she said, has the chance to effect real change for some of the people who need it most.