Monday, December 23, 2013

Behind the Kitchen Door

Saru Jayaraman, Behind the Kitchen Door, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012), 175 pages, $21.95

When I was a teenager at restaurants with my dad he usually paid with cash and waited for change before figuring a tip, which he would put down as we got up to leave or sometimes hand to the waitress.

I watched this process many times before I got curious enough to ask how much a tip should be. I was told in somber tones that the proper tip was 15 percent of the bill before taxes. Further instructions included several warnings. If you tip less you will be thought of as cheap or chintzy; if you tip more you might get laughed at as someone wanting to be a big shot.

I thought about that advice a number of times reading Behind the Kitchen Door, a short book of 175 pages and seven chapters entirely devoted to the trials and troubles of earning a living in today’s restaurant industry. Discussion includes as much about work in the dining room as work behind the kitchen door.

The author founded the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United in April 2002 and continues today as national director. The Centers advocate for restaurant workers organized within local affiliates in cities around the U.S. As a labor organizer she could be part Mother Jones and part Frances Perkins; the center sounds like a union by another name.

The book starts with the 250 people who lost their jobs in the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center after 9/11. We meet some of the displaced and learn about their lives, their hopes and their struggles. Along the way we meet other people; I counted at least sixteen. Jayaraman tells their stories while filling in with some industry facts, figures and discussion until readers understand the restaurant industry and how it works by the end of the book, but also where it fails patrons and restaurant staff.

In Chapter two readers meet Diep, a Vietnamese immigrant, whose varied experiences gardening, working in restaurants and owning her own restaurant help introduce many of the issues and problems in the restaurant industry. Diep’s restaurant offers stark contrast to franchise restaurants, fast and slow. She worries about organic, locally grown produce and paying a living wage.

Remaining chapters cover specific topics like sick leave, income and discrimination. Most restaurant workers work when they are sick because few get sick leave and the National Restaurant Association lobbies against requiring it. Apparently Typhoid Mary from folklore tales worked at a restaurant so we get the picture here. In Chapter four, $2.13 – the Tipping Point, readers not familiar with the economics of restaurants learn about wages, the sub-minimum wages of tipped employees, and some of the abuses many have to cope with working in restaurants.

In 1996 and again in 2007 the restaurant industry lobbied Congress to leave the tipped minimum wage at $2.13 an hour. The Federal tipped minimum has remained at $2.13 an hour since 1991, which makes it only 29 percent of the present $7.25 an hour minimum wage.

Under federal rules in the Fair Labor Standards Act employers who pay a sub minimum wage must verify that tips are enough to bring an employee up to at least the minimum wage, a practice known as taking the tip credit. Taking the tip credit requires detailed recordkeeping because employers are required to verify that tips are enough to make up the difference of the minimum and sub minimum wage. If tips are not enough to equal the minimum wage then the employer is expected to make up the difference.

Here we learn first hand from Claudia how that can work. Her employer said “If you don’t make enough tips to make up the difference you have to report that you made up the money anyway.” Tax withholding based on $7.25 an hour when tips are little and the tipped minimum wage is $2.13 an hour can and does generate pay checks of zero.

Differences in table assignments in the dining room and individual work schedules can also cause wide disparities in earnings for the same job in the same restaurant, especially serving occupations. This makes equality of opportunity as big an issue for restaurant workers as in any other industry or profession.

Two more chapters report and describe personal experience with racial-ethnic and gender bias in restaurant work. Here the many people we meet give convincing details of differences in pay and opportunities based on the unfounded reluctance to have people of color and women in visible positions in the dining room.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 11.55 million working in eighteen food preparation and serving occupations at a median wage of $9.10 in 2012. Their numbers are growing. Behind the Kitchen Door advocates for these workers. Its goals are modest as summed in a last chapter where she asks for those who dine out to vote with their fork and to expect restaurants that cut corners with their help to cut corners with the meals they serve to patrons. Jayaraman asks us to talk to restaurant workers and find out how they are treated and to “Always try to know from the workers if they will be getting all of their tips.” She asks for those who dine out to voice their political support for a higher minimum tipped wage and paid sick leave for restaurant workers.

The book is organized clearly and reads easily. Even though the book is short it dragged at times for me because Jayaraman described the lives of the people in her book in enormous detail, often describing families and life experiences unconnected to restaurant work. For some this may be an advantage and it does humanize the people in the book, but I wanted more examples with details about earnings, wage theft, tips, tip schemes and IRS involvement with tip abuses. In that way it is less of a labor book and more of an interview book than I would like, but despite these reservations it provides a good way for readers to know the workings of the restaurant industry and its problems.

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