Research & Policy

ROC organizes restaurant worker members, academics, and other allies to conduct the most comprehensive industry analyses ever conducted on the United States restaurant industry. This participatory research serves as the basis for our worker-led local, state, and federal policy advocacy. 

Research: Early on in our fight for improving working conditions for research workers, we became aware of the lack of research on restaurant workers and issues that affect them. We began by producing the first-ever comprehensive restaurant industry studies in our affiliate locations- the Behind the Kitchen Door reports in New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, New Orleans, Maine, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles. Across the country our data has found that there are two roads to profitability: the “high road” and the “low road”.

- High road restaurants are the source of the best jobs in the industry those that provide livable wages, access to health benefits, and advancement in the industry.

- Low road restaurants creates low-wage jobs with long hours, few benefits, and exposure to dangerous and often unlawful workplace conditions

Many Bad Jobs, A Few Good Ones: Our research indicates that the majority of restaurant employers in each of the eight regions examined appear to be taking the low road, creating a predominantly low-wage industry in which violations of employment and health and safety laws are commonplace. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national median hourly wage for food preparation and service workers is only $8.89 including tips, which means that half of all restaurant workers nationwide actually earn less.

Disproportionate workers of colors in “bad jobs”: We found that it is largely workers of color who are concentrated in the industry’s “bad jobs,” while white workers tend to disproportionately hold the few “good jobs.” Workers also reported discriminatory hiring, promotion and disciplinary practices. These challenges resulted in a $3.71 wage gap between white restaurant workers and workers of color in the eight regions, with the median hourly wage of all white workers surveyed in the eight localities being $13.25 and that of workers of color being $9.54.

Find Behind the Kitchen Door reports here.

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Policy: Restaurant workers believe that better laws can help improve working conditions in the restaurant industry. ROC-United and ROC affiliates engage in worker-led policy campaigns on the national and local level to advocate for wage increases, paid sick days, health benefits, improved enforcement of labor and employment laws, and formalized advancements. ROC restaurant worker members advocate by:

  • - Mobilizing voters;
  • - Attending and leading education sessions on how laws are made;
  • - Educating legislators with our research findings; and
  • - Testifying at public hearings.

Our lead issue: The frozen tipped minimum wage that suppresses wages through the restaurant industry. Through our surveys and extensive interviews with restaurant workers, and worker policy committees we discovered that low wages were the most important issue facing restaurant workers today. The federal tipped minimum wage has been frozen for the last 20 years at just $2.13. In 1996 and 2007, Congress passed legislation increasing the minimum wage while leaving the tipped minimum wage frozen. During the last 20 years, inflation has eroded the value of the tipped wage resulting in the lowest real value since it was created in 1966. (See EPI report). And the low tipped minimum wage suppresses wages for all restaurant workers.

$2.13 is less than 30% of the regular minimum wage- making it increasing difficult for tipped workers to support themselves and their families. Today according to the EPI report, tipped workers are more than twice as likely (with waiters/waitresses almost three times as likely) to fall under the federal poverty line. This means it is very likely your waiter or waitress is living under the federal poverty line.

Take action now to support fair pay for restaurant workers.

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Our research covers discriminatory hiring, workplace practices and unsafe conditions for consumers, as well as the profitability of thehigh-road. Read and/or download reports here.