Restaurant workers are paid low wages, seldom receive employee benefits, and are rarely offered raises or promotions. In the coming weeks, Food Tank will feature a series of interviews with restaurant workers who are members of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Chicago (ROC-Chicago), the Chicago affiliate of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United), to share the experiences of restaurant industry employees.
Throughout this week, employees of fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s, KFC, and Burger King have been holding single-day strikes to protest low wages–the average fast food worker makes just US$8.94 per hour, according to a recent report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP). The strikes, which first began in Manhattan, have picked up steam this week in the Midwestern cities of Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Flint. In many of these cities, this is the second time that fast food workers have organized a strike in the past six months.
According to the NELP report, jobs in the fast food industry are overwhelmingly (89.1 percent of all industry jobs) front-line positions – cashier, food preparation, customer service – meaning that there’s little room for upward mobility. First-line (shift) supervisors make up only 8.7 percent of all industry positions, and earn a median of US$13.06 per hour. Only one percent of those in the fast food industry are franchise owners, and requirements for franchising regularly include having a net worth upwards of US$500,000.
Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROCUnited) is a nationwide organization that fights for fair wages and labor rights for workers in the restaurant industry through labor organizing, research, and education. Jazmin Curiel is a member of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Chicago (ROC-Chicago), and graciously agreed to speak with Food Tank about her experience as an employee of a Vietnamese restaurant in Chicago.
Describe a typical day at your job. What kinds of work do you do?
I’ve worked at a Vietnamese restaurant in the Loop (ed. note: The Loop is a term for Downtown Chicago) for almost eight months now. I would say my position consists of doing everything. I’m a prep cook, line cook, sandwich maker, and cashier when required. My day starts around 8:30-9:00 in the morning every weekday, and it begins with a lot of prep work … [I’m also in charge of] assigning duties to the people I work with. I’m also training all the new employees that soon will be going to a new location. We open at 11:00 AM, and that is when the party starts. We usually have a very busy lunch rush in the restaurant, accompanied by deliveries and people ordering take out. I’m in charge of the food station in front – keeping it clean and keeping food coming out as fast as possible and in the order it was received.
How physically and/or mentally demanding would you say it is?
I would say my job is very demanding in both respects. Standing for hours can be exhausting, and dealing with customers – not to mention my co-workers – can really stress me out. The thing about this industry is that it requires people who have a passion for the hospitality/restaurant environment, and nowadays that is very difficult to find.
Do you feel like you’re being adequately compensated for the work that you do? Why or why not?
No. I do the job of a supervisor or manager without getting paid enough by the hour. Sometimes I think the owners just want to keep our hopes up with [promises of] raises in our wages and other opportunities, but they never happen, and that is very disappointing and frustrating.
Do you feel that the demanding nature of your work affects your ability to fully enjoy other areas of your life?
Yes and no. I would say that the nature of my job doesn’t [directly] affect my personal life, but what really affects my life is the lack of full-time [work] and benefits, and the hourly wage that I receive – things that I have been very loud and clear about with the owners.
Why did you become involved with ROC-Chicago?
I became involved with ROC-Chicago back in 2009 when I learned that they offered bartending classes. I needed proof that I was qualified to bartend, and they were offering certificates.
How has your involvement with ROC-Chicago affected your views on the restaurant industry?
I learned a lot. I knew the industry wasn’t close to being perfect, but didn’t know about a lot of stuff that I learned with ROC, like the policy-making [process] and the innumerable laws that restaurant owners break every single day. [I wasn’t aware of] all of my rights as a restaurant worker, or even as a human being. I think that working with ROC had helped me to become a better person in a lot of respects – especially in being more understanding of the problems we as restaurant workers face everyday, and in having more solidarity with my co-workers. I grew up in this industry, and it’s very sad to see the reality [of it], and sometimes not be able to do anything to change it.
What do you think needs to change most urgently for workers in the restaurant industry?
First, raise the minimum wage, and increase awareness and education – not only with our representatives but [amongst] ourselves. Sometimes our jobs take a big percentage of our lives that we forget about. We [recognize], but ignore, the things that are wrong just because we need to support our families, and I believe that, in our culture, that needs to change.
What should be done to change it?
Create new laws. Create educational seminars and classes to teach our communities that keeping the people that work in one of the biggest and growing industries in the world in poverty creates more poverty and creates a circle that never ends – including in our families, schools, neighborhoods, and in the end, the whole nation and the world. There are many issues that we can address with [raising] the minimum wage, such as violence, government assistance, Social Security, small business, education, and health care. We need to educate our people and keep organizing restaurant workers. I believe that one day things will change, but we need to help [change them].
But the biggest thing that we need to change is the minimum wage – we need to increase the minimum wage! If we start with that, we can make a huge difference. I mean, four years with no increase in our wages, but a lot of increases in taxes, prices, gas, and even food? We also need to eliminate the US$2.13 federal hourly wage for tipped workers, which hasn’t changed in 22 years. We serve your food. We have families, and we are part of your communities and the society as a whole. What can I really buy with US$2.13? Not even a bus ride to my house.