Speaking of Women's Rights: Community Spotlight: ROC-Seattle

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Community Spotlight: ROC-Seattle

Q&A with ROC-Seattle's Elena Perez
and Legal Voice's Sarah MacDonald

The restaurant industry is riddled with inequities: Few other industries have such widely accepted low wages; workers often rely heavily on tips to make a living, which perpetuates racism, sexism, and sexual harassment; and exploitative workplace policies are all too common, especially for immigrant and refugee communities who are disproportionately represented in the industry.

Today is National Food Service Workers Day—a day when we don't just show appreciation for the folks who prepare, cook, and serve our meals, but when we also shine a light on the daily challenges they face in the workplace.

I asked Elena Perez of ROC-Seattle a few questions about the organization's current work at the intersection of low-wage work; racial, gender, and immigrant justice; and workplace sexual violence. Read on to learn more!


Who is ROC United?

Founded initially after September 11th, 2001 as a worker relief center for affected restaurant workers and their families, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) has grown into a national organization with restaurant worker members in chapters in New York, California, Boston, Chicago, Michigan, New Orleans, Pennsylvania, Seattle, and Washington, DC. Across the country, we have activated 130,000 restaurant workers, employers, and consumers to improve wages and working conditions in the restaurant industry.

Raising the wage and labor standards in the restaurant industry is a matter of economic, social, gender, and racial justice. ROC United is committed to work with workers, employers, consumers, workers’ rights advocates, and legislators to eliminate unjust labor practices dating back to the slavery era, professionalize the industry, and bring dignity to the work and lives of hardworking men and women in some of the lowest paid occupations in the country.

What is one of the most pressing issues facing restaurant workers in Washington State?

ROC-Seattle’s primary goal is to give support to low-wage restaurant workers in the daily challenges that they face in the industry. Overall, across this work, we recognize the need to collectively build power and voice for restaurant workers in our region. The issues we are centering on currently are: defending and expanding on "One Fair Wage" in Washington; building lines of defense and support for immigrants and refugees in the industry who are increasingly targeted in today's political climate; and confronting racial and gender inequities in the industry that underlie disparities in wages, treatment, and opportunities for advancement for women and people of color.

Washington State is one of eight states with a legislated One Fair Wage policy and one of seven states where this policy has been fully implemented. One Fair Wage refers to a policy that guarantees all workers, including those in tipped occupations, the full minimum wage with tips on top. As local jurisdictions pursue minimum wages higher than the state's, the greatest challenge is to ensure that tipped workers are not carved out from local legislation, and that labor rules issued by the state are explicit and unambiguous in protecting the equal wage regime at all local levels.

Wage theft is also a continuing challenge in the restaurant industry as are practices that mislead customers in believing service charges go to servers when they legally belong to the business owners. Until the industry pays restaurant workers a living wage, tips are necessary to complement the minimum wage. Restaurant workers are professionals in every sense, yet not recognized as such with corresponding compensation.

What organizing strategies is ROC-Seattle currently working on to address these issues?

We are proud that Washington is one of the eight states in our nation with One Fair Wage, and are thankful for our State's leadership in defending the civil rights of immigrants and refugees, and other targeted communities. But there is still work to do to make economic, social, racial and gender justice real for workers throughout the restaurant industry. Two prime areas of organizing are:

  1. Defending workers' rights under One Fair Wage. We are currently advocating with the WA Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) to make sure tip theft protections apply equally to ALL workers in ALL cities in Washington. In partnership with Legal Voice, we are urging L&I to revise their Legal Guidance on Tips & Service Charges to make it clear that every single tipped worker in Washington has the right to tips and service charges in addition to their hourly minimum wage. One Fair Wage in WA is being undermined by L&I's lack of clarity about workers' rights to full tips and service charges when they earn higher minimum wages under local ordinances in cities like Seatac, Seattle and Tacoma. Tips and service charges should never be used by owners to meet their local minimum wage obligations! During L&I's public comment period, we organized over 150 individuals from across the State to call for equal protections for tipped workers, and we continue to organize with our members to ensure L&I fully implements and enforces WA's tip theft protections.

  2. Due to a combination of policy, industry, and cultural trends, the very visible and diverse restaurant workforce has been a prominent target of harassment and hate crimes. For immigrants working in the industry, they are often isolated both physically and socially, with many speaking limited English and segregated into back-of-house jobs. There are real and perceived vulnerabilities that are preyed upon by unethical employers leading to rampant wage theft, harassment, and lack of compliance with labor laws, with workers afraid to respond because of fear of retaliation. In response, ROC-Seattle is conducting extensive community-based outreach in English and Spanish to educate restaurant industry workers on their legal rights on the job and offering free legal support to address their daily challenges at work. We currently offer Know Your Rights/Conozca sus Derechos trainings for workers and restaurant employers around Labor Standards and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) Activity, and offer additional trainings through ROC's Sanctuary Restuarants movement including Sexual Harassment 101 and LGBTQ Worker Rights.

In both campaigns, we are building power with a strong base of worker members in ROC-Seattle advocating for fair wages, and safe, healthy and equitable working conditions.

As in so many other service jobs, women and people of color are overly represented in low-wage restaurant work. Why do you think this is?

I'll start with some numbers:

  • Half of Americans, at some point in their lives, work in the restaurant industry. 
  • Women comprise 66% of all tipped workers. 
  • Women in tipped restaurant occupations earn 80% of their male counterparts’ wages; female servers in America experience a poverty rate that is three times that of their male counterparts. 
  • Restaurant workers of color earn 56% less income on average compared to equally qualified white workers. 
Our "Behind the Kitchen Door" research found a $5 per hour wage gap between white men and women of color in Seattle's full service industry jobs. One of the underlying causes for this is that restaurant workers of color access living wage fine dining occupations only 73% of the time, compared to equally qualified white workers.

All these national statistics point to an issue of a great gender and racial occupational disparity that has its roots in a long history of institutionalized racism, leading to economic inequality that persist in our society from generation to generation. ROC has been working for years to address these issues through RAISE, its high road employer program; CHOW, a worker training program which opens the door to professions in fine dining for women and people of color; and advocacy for racial, gender, immigrant, and economic justice. In Seattle and the Bay, ROC is confronting racial and gender occupational segregation in the industry through our Racial Equity Project where we partner with restaurant employers who seek to advance racial equity in their establishments; create career ladders for workers through CHOW training; and seek broad policy solutions to address race and gender-based occupational segregation in the industry.

As we’ve learned through the #MeToo movement, workplace sexual violence is widespread in low-wage jobs and is often fueled by a power imbalance between a worker and their employer, supervisor, or even their customer. What kinds of power dynamics are present when restaurant workers are on the job?

While 7% of American women work in the restaurant industry, more than 14% of all sexual harassment claims to the EEOC come from the restaurant industry—disproportionately more than from any other industry. Recent studies report that more than 90% of restaurant workers in the District of Columbia and more than 80% in New York report experiencing sexual harassment at work. Workers in states like Washington, who do not have a lower tipped minimum wage, experience sexual harassment at half the rate of those working in states where they must depend on customers’ tips for the bulk of their income. But sexual harassment is still a significant issue in the industry even in the One Fair Wage states and affects workers long after they leave the industry.

Because the experiences of sexual harassment are so extreme, overt, and widespread in the restaurant industry, women tend to marginalize their experiences of inappropriate workplace behavior later in their careers as they feel those experiences are “never as bad” as what they have had to put up with as young servers. When workers depend on customers to pay a significant portion of their compensation through tips, they are forced to tolerate inappropriate behavior. And it is not just customers who decide their tips, but also managers who control shift and table assignments, and even co-workers who impact the perceived value of service indirectly and therefore might have power over the server (e.g. server’s tips may depend on the quality or speed of the work of kitchen and support staff).

How can people in the Legal Voice community support restaurant workers and ROC Seattle’s mission?

Join us! Whether you are a current or former industry worker, a restaurant owner or manager, or an "eater" who loves to advance social justice while dining out, we have a home for you. Stay current on our campaigns through our national website and our local Facebook page. If you have ideas for collaboration or want to volunteer for ROC-Seattle, please contact me, Elena Perez, at elena@rocunited.org.

Photo courtesy of ROC-Seattle