Even the plutocrats of One Percent Nation have to eat. They eat well, they eat regularly, and they dine out. A lot. Because the Long Depression has not affected the pocketbooks of the wealthy, the high-end hospitality business is one of the few booming industries in this dismal economy. One out of every 12 private sector jobs is in restaurants. It is also very likely that when Richie Rich Congressman or K Street Kleptocrat sits down at, say, the Capital Grille, his server will be white.
Brown and black employees rarely get table-waiting jobs in fancy restaurants. They're usually relegated to the clean-up crew, the dishwashing detail, or at best, to the crummy tables in the back of the room. The restaurant employment watchdog group ROC (Restaurant Opportunities Center) says that in an industry already notorious for its poverty level wages, black employees earn an average of $4 less an hour than whites.
A 2009 study revealed that hiring discrimination in high-end New York City restaurants, where workers can earn up to $100,000 annually, is also common. The wealthier the clientele and the pricier the menu, the likelier it is that your server will be fair-skinned and accent-free. Unless, naturally, it's a French accent.
Now, a federal lawsuit against the Darden Group, a huge restaurant chain with a reputation for serial discrimination, has been filed in Illinois. Minority workers in the chain, which includes Olive Garden, Red Lobster and the tonier Capital Grille, claim that they are paid less than minimum wage, are often forced to work off the clock, and are denied promotion. One restaurant (the Capital Grille in Washington) allegedly fired a group of black servers en masse because it was suddenly decided they didn't meet optical standards. How ironic, considering that Darden CEO Clarence Otis Jr is himself a well-regarded African American businessman. He used to work for JP Morgan, and is also a member of the Federal Reserve in Atlanta.
Otis, judging from an indignant editorial he wrote recently on the CNN website, finds it annoying that his wage slaves want to be treated with dignity. An Obama donor, he also reportedly met personally with the president to kvetch about how hard it is out there for job creators providing all those thousands of fantastic minimum wage jobs, only to have their largesse and civic-mindedness abused by burdensome government regulations eating into bottom lines and investor dividends. We have no idea whether Obama told him off, placated him, laughed uproariously, or what. It was private. But here is what Otis actually had the chutzpah to whine about publicly:
Regulatory mandates flowing from federal health care reform may be the most visible, but the list also includes measures such as new mandatory paid leave provisions that require us to change the way we accommodate employees who need to take time off when they are ill and ever more unrealistic requirements regarding employee meal and rest breaks that, in California for example, force our employees to take breaks in the middle of serving lunch or dinner.
Otis, who makes $7.16 million a year, actually did get one of the many Obamacare waivers absolving him from having to fully cover his part-timers. Yet, according to the lawsuit filed last week in Chicago, he doesn’t even pay some of them minimum wage. Color of Change, an African-American advocacy group, is outraged:
Despite the lawsuit, Darden will get a dollop of free positive publicity this week when First Lady Michelle Obama celebrates the second anniversary of her "Let's Move" anti-obesity campaign at a Texas Olive Garden restaurant. Darden is among the corporations which have pledged to gradually (they get five years) start reducing the salt and fat content of the food they sell and to add healthier sides.Darden runs nearly 2,000 restaurants nationwide and boasts annual sales of $7.5 billion. But the few Black workers who make it into the big leagues there often don't stay very long. According to reports from two Black servers who worked at Darden's Capital Grille in DC -- a restaurant patronized by politicians, lobbyists, and others in the Washington elite -- Black front-of-the-house staff were let go en masse within a short period of time because they “didn’t fit the company image.” They were all replaced by White workers.Despite the pattern of racial discrimination, Darden -- the world's largest full-service restaurant company -- ranks in the "Top 100 Places to Work," an annual list published by Fortune Magazine. The company gets high marks for a diverse workforce (of course, there's no mention of who works which job.) At a time when Black unemployment is nearly twice the national average and the private sector is being heralded as our greatest hope, Darden's pattern of relegating Black workers to lowest wage work is unconscionable.
But I digress. If you're wondering whether your own favorite restaurant is among the many which treat its employees like crap, ROC has put out a handy Zagat-type rating guide to help you. (You can also sign Color of Change's petition telling Mr. Wonderful's Darden chain to cut the crap, right here.)
The Guide evaluates more than 150 popular restaurants and chains nationwide against 3 criteria: provision of paid sick days, wages of at least $9 per hour for non-tipped workers and $5 per hour of tipped workers, and opportunities for internal advancement.
These are good criteria. I don’t want a sick person handling my food, nor do I want them to lose wages or jobs because they’re sick. The minimum wage for tipped workers has remained at a measly $2.13 per hour for nearly 20 years, so every day consumers have to push for a higher standard since Congress won’t. And finally, racial and gender hierarchies are a fact of life in the restaurant industry, with white men getting the best paying jobs at the front of the house. Across the country, ROC United has found that a system that enables internal promotion so that back of the house workers can get access to front of the house jobs, is a key element of restaurants that don’t discriminate.
The Guide goes further than telling you where to go. Since it doesn’t cover absolutely every one of the millions of restaurants in this country, ROC United asks diners to simply take a look around and ask a few questions when they eat out. Just opening our eyes will tell us who works where. Are all the waiters white? Are all the bussers Latinos? Are there no black people or women anywhere? It isn’t difficult to ask your waiter what his hourly wages are. And if the restaurant doesn’t meet the standards listed above, there are tear out cards in the back of the guide that you can leave with management to let them know where they can get help to do better.