June 12, 2012, 9:00 pmMARK BITTMAN
Help wanted: Salary: $19,000 (some may be withheld or stolen). No health insurance, paid sick days or paid vacation. Opportunity for advancement: nearly nil.
This job, or something much like it, is held by nearly 20 million people, 10 million of whom work in restaurants. They are the workers employed in producing, processing and delivering our food, who have been portrayed in vivid and often dispiriting detail in a new report called The Hands That Feed Us. Written by the Food Chain Workers Alliance, the report surveyed nearly 700 workers employed in five major sectors: production, processing, distribution, retail and service.
The upshot: Our food comes at great expense to the workers who provide it. “The biggest workforce in America can’t put food on the table except when they go to work,” says Saru Jayaraman, Co-Founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-U).
Many people in the nascent food movement and in the broader “foodie” set know our farmers’ (and their kids’) names and what their animals eat. We practically worship chefs, and the damage done to land, air and water by high-tech ag is — correctly — a constant concern.
Yet though you can’t be a card-carrying foodie if you don’t know the provenance of your heirloom tomato, you apparently can be one if you don’t know how the members of your wait staff are treated. We don’t seem to mind or even notice that our servers might be making $2.13 an hour. That tip you debate increasing to 20 percent might be the difference in making the rent.
It’s true that a bit of attention has been paid to farmworkers — with some good results — and occasionally you read about the horrors of life in a slaughterhouse. But despite our obsession with food, the worker is an afterthought.
The Hands That Feed Us, and the work being done on the ground by groups like ROC-U — which contributed to the report and helped create the Food Chain Workers Alliance in 2008 — may signal the beginning of a change.
Take that $2.13 figure, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers. Legally, tips should cover the difference between that and the federal minimum wage, now a whopping $7.25. If they don’t, employers are obligated to make up the difference. But that doesn’t always happen, leaving millions of servers — 70 percent of whom are women — taking home far less than the minimum wage.
Which brings us to the happily almost-forgotten Herman Cain. What’s called the “tipped minimum wage” — that $2.13 — once increased in proportion to the regular minimum wage. But in 1996, the year Cain took over as head of the National Restaurant Association (NRA), he struck a deal with President Bill Clinton and his fellow Democrats. In exchange for an increase in the regular minimum wage, the tipped minimum wage was de-coupled. The result: despite regular increases in the regular minimum wage, the tipped minimum wage hasn’t changed since 1991.
Other disheartening facts: Around one in eight jobs in the food industry provides a wage greater than 150 percent of the regional poverty level. More than three-quarters of the workers surveyed don’t receive health insurance from their employers. (Fifty-eight percent don’t have it at all; national health care, anyone?) More than half have worked while sick or suffered injuries or health problems on the job, and more than a third reported some form of wage theft in the previous week. Not year: week.
There are societal considerations as well as moral ones: Food workers use public assistance programs (including, ironically, SNAP or food stamps), at higher rates than the rest of the United States work force. And not surprisingly, more than a third of workers use the emergency room for primary care, and 80 percent of them were unable to pay for it. These are tabs we all pick up.
Senator Tom Harkin’s (D-IA) proposed Rebuild America Act would raise the tipped minimum wage to $6.85 over five years (and the federal minimum wage to $9.80 by 2014), and allow more American workers to earn paid sick days. But Jayaraman (whose book, Behind the Kitchen Door, will be published next year), justifiably believes that these battles won’t be won at a federal level without a massive shift in consumer thinking.
Not surprisingly, most of the most notable abuses occur at the bigger companies. Remember Michelle Obama’s spotlight on Walmart (the world’s biggest food retailer) and the gigantic Darden Restaurant Company (which owns about 1,900 restaurants, including Olive Garden and Red Lobster), when she famously brokered deals with each that will ostensibly make their products “healthier”?
Well, both companies are known for labor abuses: Walmart for erratic and exhausting scheduling and hour-cutting, and Darden — highlighted in the ROC-U report — for low pay, no paid sick days, lack of breaks and even racial discrimination. Those things tend not to come up when we’re focusing on making our food system healthier.
On the other hand, Five Guys (with over 1,000 locations in the United States and Canada) evidently provides paid sick days and the opportunity for advancement.
Where would you rather eat?
That’s a real question. If you care about sustainability — the capacity to endure — it’s time to expand our definition to include workers. You can’t call food sustainable when it’s produced by people whose capacity to endure is challenged by poverty-level wages.