The Racial Divide in Restaurant Staff

According to the Great Service Divide, a report on occupational segregation and inequality conducted by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and of Seattle (ROC), “The (restaurant) industry must commit itself to ensure racial equity in the reopening and rehiring of employees and provide earning opportunities for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in order to dismantle the structural racism that exists in the restaurant industry…”

Which brings us to the question, what are the predominant hiring practices in the restaurant industry?

ROC found that, in the city of Seattle, workers of color represented 30 percent of the total employed population. In the restaurant industry, they made up 46 percent of the workforce. While these numbers suggest the restaurant industry hardly classifies as an unequal opportunity employer, a deeper look into employment practices finds some discrimination at work.

This same study found that the positions in the FOH and BOH were highly segregated by race, ethnicity, and gender. An example of this is the number of bartenders of color in Seattle—only 18 percent. They also found that 26 percent of white bartenders and servers earned a livable wage, while this number dwindled to 15 percent for people of color. In addition, workers of color were disproportionately represented in the BOH and in quick-service restaurants as well as positions such as bussers or runners.

Unequal Racial Distribution

When ROC determined the percentage of workers of color in various positions in the restaurant industry in Seattle, the segregation and inequality were clear.

  • Delivery and Room Service: 86 percent
  • Runners, Bussers, and Bar-Backs: 63 percent
  • Fast Food Occupations: 52 percent
  • Cooks: 60 percent
  • Counter Attendants: 2 percent
  • Supervisory Positions: 40 percent
  • Servers: 40 percent
  • Bartenders: 18 percent

As many of you know, Seattle is an expensive place to live. In fact, it ranks as the fifth most expensive place to live in America, right behind Manhattan, San Francisco, Honolulu, and Brooklyn. While restaurant workers in Seattle are among the highest paid in the country, only 16 percent of workers of color hold a livable wage position, meaning their income is greater than four times the poverty rate. This figure rises to 27 percent for white workers.

A report from non-profit UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center and One Fair Wage found that, in New York, only 32 percent of people of color and 33 percent of women are employed in the highest paying front of house positions in fine dining establishments. In Manhattan, 84 percent of the management positions in fine-dining restaurants were held by white staff.

Tipped Minimum Wages and Inequality

They also found that tipped minimum wages can lead to racial and gender pay disparity. Only seven states require employers to pay tipped employees the full state minimum wage before tips. The others require employers to pay tipped employees a minimum direct wage, sometimes as low as $2.13, if wage plus tips equal at least the states minimum wage.

In New York, the minimum cash wage is $7.85 with the maximum tip credit against minimum wage at $3.95 for tipped food service workers. The minimum wage in New York is $11.80.

Their study revealed, “a nearly $5 per hour differential in wages (including tips) between black-tipped women and white men tipped workers nationally, and a nearly $8 per hour differential in New York.” Research also showed that, in general, black workers receive fewer tips than their white counterparts, regardless of their position.

Restaurants and Equitable Hiring Practices

The restaurant industry has always been a primary employer for millions of workers. Before the pandemic struck, there were approximately 1 million restaurants employing over 15 million people. Our industry now has the opportunity, as we struggle to make our way out of the COVID-19 mire, to transform our hiring and promoting practices, ensuring we are considering ability over race or gender. When promoting, look to all existing staff, creating an environment that incentivizes those that excel and a culture that defines work well done based on actions and attitude, not the color of one’s skin or gender.

Regulators can also assist in reducing racial and gender discrimination. ROC and the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic identified three incentives that policymakers should consider: tax, licensing, and recognition. They shared the example of Austin, Texas, and their Business Expansion Incentive Program, which provides property tax reimbursements and a percentage of wage reimbursement to employers who pay their employees at least the city’s living wage, which is currently $15 per hour.

ROC United, Race Forward, and the Center for Social Inclusion has created a Racial Equity Toolkit for Restaurant Employees that provides employers with “step-by-step resources to assess, plan, and implement steps towards greater racial equity on the job.” Partnering with Alta and Homeroom, two respected restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area, they identified the skills and tools that can help identify if and where racial bias exists in your establishment, both conscious and unconscious, and help develop a plan to eliminate any discrimination.

The National Restaurant Association and the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance (MFHA) teamed up to create the online training program, Understanding Unconscious Bias in Restaurants. The program consists of two 30-minute training modules, one geared to managers and the other for employees, that help staff recognize unconscious bias and take steps to promote a fair, respectful, and inclusive workplace.

  • Subscribe to our latest insights


Are you capital raise ready?