dinner-valentines.jpgTonight, about 70 million Americans are expected to celebrate Valentine’s at a restaurant. And that’s why one group supporting restaurant workers chose today to release a disturbing study that may make you feel uneasy about the filet mignon and crème brûlée you order.

Romance among the under-paid dishwashers, cooks, and bus boys and girls isn’t so sweet; and it’s even worse when you think about how many of these workers have no paid sick days and will end up clocking in today when they’re sick. Yes, they may be sneezing on your romance-laden entrees.

You may get sick as a result, but the sickness that’s endemic in the restaurant industry has a much more serious impact, socially and economically, than an amorous couple getting the flu.

A survey by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, or ROC, found that among restaurant workers in a host of major U.S. cities:

* 87.7% did not have paid sick days.
* 63.7% worked while sick.
* 89.7% did not have insurance through their employer.

It’s a sad commentary on an industry that prides itself on giving us all a restorative experience. Too bad, many establishments aren’t too worried about restoring their own employees.

Saru Jayaraman, co-director of ROC, said many of the people working in the restaurant industry are barely making living wages, and it has a lot to do with a system of wages that needs to be overhauled. For the past two decades tipped workers have gotten a minimum wage of $2.13 an hour, and she said the wage hits certain restaurant employers, such as busers, hard.

According to a story written by Representative Donna Edwards, D-MD in TheHill.com:

… nearly 15% of all waiters and waitresses live below the federal poverty level, while only 5.7% of the workforce as a whole falls beneath this threshold. Minority populations are particularly hard hit by these low wages. According to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS), 22.3% of African-American tipped employees and 18% of Latino tipped employees live in families that are below the federal poverty level.

Edwards has proposed raising the minimum for tipped wage earners to $3.75; and then to $5.50 by 2012.

Another big problem in the industry that the ROC studies uncovered was a glass ceiling for minority workers.

In both Washington, DC and Los Angeles, more than one-third of workers reported race-based verbal abuse. In Miami, more than 40 percent reported abuse motivated by race. Workers reportedly receive lower pay, are more likely to be harassed, and lack opportunities for promotion based on certain demographics.

The study also found that the median wage for white workers was $13.25, but only $9.54 for workers of color.

The ROC has several recommendations to improve practices in the restaurant industry. The recommendations include offering sick days to workers, increasing the minimum wage for those working on tips, more strictly enforcing standards in the industry, and rewarding businesses that treat their workers well.

All this got me thinking that if these restaurateurs are treating their workers in a crummy way — and not all do to be sure — how must they be treating the food they make for us? And what about how the workers perform?

ROC asked a question along these lines.

* 34.6% of those polled reported having to do things under time pressure that might have harmed the health and safety of the consumer.

Food for thought on this day of romance. Maybe we should just stick to a box of chocolates.

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