Posted: May 20, 2019
About two years ago, Joel Leon, 23, was applying for a server position at a restaurant in Ventura, California. He was proud of his resume—he had previously worked his way up to assistant manager at a fast food restaurant—and he felt good about how the interview went. But as he waited on a bench outside, he heard the white man who interviewed after him get offered the job on the spot, despite being less qualified. “He had little to no experience, and he got the job,” Leon says. “I really needed that job.”
It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. Leon, whose parents immigrated here from Mexico, moved from working in farm fields alongside his mom as a teen to working in all types of restaurants to help pay the bills. He hoped to snag a front-of-house job like serving because of the better wages and tips. But, “it was really hard for me to get into those positions,” he says. “I’ve only been offered dish washer and busser positions, which is really unfortunate.”
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The Bay Area’s fine dining scene pays white workers six dollars more an hour, on average, than its workers of color.
The restaurant industry is one of the largest and fastest growing private-sector employers in the country, and almost half of its workers are people of color. But as the industry continues to grow, its non-white workers continue to be underrepresented in higher paying positions.
This trend is all too apparent in California, where restaurants employ nearly 1.6 million workers, or just over 9 percent of the state’s workforce. According to data compiled by researchers at the advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United and the racial justice nonprofit Race Forward, even though workers of color make up more than 70 percent of California’s restaurant workforce, fewer than 18 percent of them make $31 dollars an hour or more, or four times the poverty level (what ROC considers a living wage in the state), compared to 35 percent of white restaurant workers.
Poverty by race among restaurant workers in California (Data from: American Community Survey, 2013-2017). ROC United
In the culinary hub of the Bay Area, where the restaurant industry employs more than 300,000 of the area’s 3.5 million people, 45 percent of white restaurant workers make a living wage as servers, while only 28 percent of workers of color do. At the national level, those percentages are 22 percent and 19 percent, respectively. The Bay Area’s fine dining restaurants, which offer patrons their pick of sophisticated cuisine from India, Morocco, and Japan, sometimes within a one-block radius, pay white workers six dollars more an hour, on average, than workers of color.
“We are diverse but not equitable,” ROC United president Saru Jayaraman said at a press conference for the release of the group’s new report on racial equity in the Bay Area’s restaurant industry.
By Marisa Endicott
May 17, 2019
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