Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of good jobs and in the kingdom of food service. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.
OK, I might have taken some liberty with author Susan Sontag’s famous quote. She was talking about humanity’s tenuous relationship with good health — “the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick” — not about jobs. But the point is, there are many kingdoms in America, and we don’t always have a choice where we reside.
I have been living and working in the kingdom of food service since I was a 15-year-old clearing tables at an Italian restaurant after school. It’s a form of citizenship I had hoped to voluntarily renounce long ago, but I keep returning to make ends meet, like many people who also have jobs aimed at the public good, in schools, nonprofits and local government. (Two of my current food service coworkers are school teachers.)
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Since the 2008 recession, I have watched our ranks in the kingdom of food service swell as the economy has replaced good jobs with bad ones.
The restaurant industry is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the U.S. economy. It is also the largest employer of minimum-wage workers in the country, which means we are growing the economy — and replacing middle and higher-paying jobs lost in the recession — with poverty-wage jobs.
More than two-thirds of restaurant employees live in poverty or near-poverty, and they are twice as likely to rely on public assistance. Benefits like sick time, medical insurance or overtime protections are rare, as is union representation and opportunities for advancement.
However, poor pay is only part of the problem. Having traveled the far reaches of this kingdom, I can tell you the industry mirrors and reproduces some of society’s most persistent problems.
Don’t wait for your waiter to tell you, but sexism and racism are always on the menu.
Of the millions of tipped workers in America, 66 percent are women. Relying on tips and the whims of male customers means a majority of female restaurant workers have experienced sexual harassment. The restaurant industry is the single largest source of sexual harassment charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Standard practices, like the division of labor, also perpetuate gender and racial inequality. Higher-paid occupations are more likely to be held by men and lower-paid positions by women, while people of color disproportionately hold the lowest-paid jobs.
Furthermore, tipping — the restaurant industry’s unique pay system — is rooted in structural racism.
“Many of the first tipped workers in the U.S. were former slaves,” labor expert Saru Jayaraman explained on the radio program Marketplace. “The restaurant industry argued that they should have the right to hire newly freed slaves and not pay them anything as valueless people. This idea was codified into the first minimum wage law. We went from a zero-dollar minimum wage in 1938 to a whopping $2.13 an hour, which is the current federal minimum wage for tipped workers in the U.S.”
This means that one of the biggest economic issues in our country today, the lack of a living wage, affecting millions of American lives, is rooted in racist oppression.
The human-rights issues plaguing the restaurant industry remind us how deeply structures of inequality are embedded in our society. Many Americans, especially those residing in the kingdom of good jobs, don’t know they are ordering from such a problematic menu.
I don’t know what my prospects are for ever leaving this place, or when I won’t spend a Labor Day weekend punching the clock, like I did this year at a busy bakery in Seattle.
Perhaps my ticket out of here is to keep doing the work I love, advocating for social and political change, so that one day these kingdoms will dissolve and we can all live in a place of true equality.
Michelle Ryder is a freelance writer living in Bonney Lake. She is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.