As the rise of Capitol Hill’s food and drink economy continues, a new report claims many of Seattle’s workers are not coming along for the ride. A survey of 524 restaurant employees by the labor group Restaurant Opportunities Center found many workers were poorly informed of their rights, faced unpredictable schedules, and are not properly compensated for working overtime.
Among the most concerning findings: only 37% of restaurant workers were aware of the city’s paid sick leave law and 74% reported that they don’t have access to it. Nearly a third said they were concerned they would be fired be if they called in sick. Moreover, a fifth of those surveyed reported working off the clock without getting paid.
According to the labor group’s study, Seattle’s restaurant industry employs 86,000 workers at 5,400 establishments.
The non-profit Restaurant Opportunities Center’s mission “is to improve wages and working conditions for the nation’s low wage restaurant workforce.” The group grew out of New York City and has since expanded to 32 U.S. cities. The Seattle report is part of a wave of survey results being released about inequity in the nation’s restaurant industry.
ROC-Seattle will be discussing its findings Thursday afternoon at the Comet along with Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant.
UPDATE (3:30 PM): Speaking at the Comet on Thursday afternoon, ROC United co-founder Saru Jayaraman highlighted one finding in the report she found particularly troubling: Among Seattle’s “front of the house” workers, white men earned $5 more per hour on average over women of color. Thats a $1 more than national average, Jayaraman said. According to the report, white men earned a median wage (plus tips) of $18.83/hr compared to $13.55/hr for women.
“The tip schedule definitely hurt women of color the hardest,” Jayaraman said, referring to Seattle’s minimum wage law which gives smaller companies more time to get tipped employees to $15 an hour.
The study release event was the culmination of two years of interviews and analysis conducted by ROC-Seattle. It’s the 15th study the organization has completed on restaurant industries in cities and states across the country.
In an effort to crack down on wage theft, Sawant said she was pushing for a bill that would require employers found guilty of wage theft to compensate workers triple the amount they’re owed. “The report ROC has come up with really shows the urgency of the need to get bills like that passed by the City Council,” Sawant said.
Joey Burgess said that, despite the report’s findings, his career was one of the many positive stories to be found in Seattle’s restaurant industry — someone who rose in the ranks of the Capitol Hill-based Guild Seattle group to eventually become a manager and part owner in the group’s latest venture, Ernest Loves Agnes.
While doing research for a book, Jayaraman said she came across some sordid history related to tip credits. According to Jayaraman, the policy has its roots in a passenger train company that wanted to hire African American porters without paying them.
The event came on the heels of Sawant teaming up with Comet owner Dave Meinert to unveil her proposal for a small business rent control law in Seattle. Both Sawant and her Council District 3 opponent Pamela Banks released small business plans in the final month leading up to the November 3rd election.
The report notes that while Seattle has made strides in improving working conditions for restaurant workers, like passing the $15 minimum wage law, many are still finding it hard to make a career in restaurants.
… while the industry holds great prospects as a result of positive steps taken by legislators and high-road employers, many restaurant jobs in the Seattle area remain low-road jobs characterized by few benefits, low wages, and poor workplace conditions.
As expected, employees in fine dining restaurants were paid more than those in fast food, but they were also three times more likely to experience overtime violations, work off the clock, or work more than 8 hours without a meal break.
As part of the study, ROC-Seattle interviewed “high road” employers, including Meinert who was interviewed about how his employees at 5 Point Cafe are offered health insurance and a 401K retirement plan.
Lack of health care and health insurance among restaurant workers was also widespread. ROC-Seattle found that 88% of those survey said their employers offered no healthcare coverage and nearly 30% reported they had no health insurance at all.
Between April and July, the City’s relatively new Office of Labor Standards opened 36 investigations into wage theft complaints — the result of 789 employer inquiries and 99 employee inquiries. Since the paid sick leave law went into effect last year, OLS has recovered $30,931 for employees who were not properly compensated by their employers.
The first and only minimum wage violation case OLS has closed was against Homegrown sandwich shop, which has several locations in the city including one inside Capitol Hill’s Melrose Market. According to Homegrown co-owner Ben Friedman, the investigation was opened in May after Homegrown was found to be miscalculating their tip credit at all their Seattle locations. Friedman said all Homegrown employees were immediately paid back with interest.
More report findings:
- Women make up 22.6% of fine dining positions, compared to 57.2% of casual full-service restaurant occupations.
- 56.7% of Asian workers, 59.8% of Black workers, and 77.4% of Latino workers worked in the Back of the House, compared to 47.8% of white workers.
- 53% of workers reported daily schedule changes
- 11% of workers said the had bent the emergency room without the ability to pay for it
- 39% of workers said they were not paid the required 1.5 times their normal wage for working over 40 hours a week.
- 6% of workers reported that owners take a share of their tips.
- 59% of restaurant workers said they’ve worked while sick.