The United States has over one million restaurants, making food service one of the largest workforces in the nation and contributing approximately 3% of the gross domestic product. Since mid-March 2020, over 12 million restaurant workers have been laid off due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and unemployment is above 30%. The Covid-19 pandemic has amplified the adverse conditions inherent to restaurant work and elevated health risks faced by workers.
My colleagues and I recently analyzed the historical and social factors influencing occupational health within the food service industry. We found that the conditions that existed in the early restaurant industry remain largely unchanged today and have led to a physically, emotionally, and financially hazardous occupational environment. The tipped wage system makes food service one of the lowest paid of all industries, further marked by a significant wage gap by gender and race. The tipped wage was last increased federally in 1991, while the minimum wage has increased 90% since then. Tipped workers typically earn less than the minimum wage and are twice as likely to live in poverty.
The Family Medical Leave Act does not mandate paid time off for short-term disability. As a result, only 35% of people working in service occupations earn paid sick time. Many work while sick and hesitate to report injuries – even those sustained on the job – to avoid missing work. Furthermore, employers with less than 50 full-time employees are exempt from the federal employer mandate requiring employers to provide health insurance. In 2014, only 14.4% of restaurant workers had employer-based health insurance, significantly below the national average of 41.9%.
All of these aspects of restaurant work contribute to occupational injuries and illnesses and they have also been amplified during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Many of the occupational outcomes found in restaurant work can be linked to the socioeconomic and structural roots of restaurants. The tipped wage creates a dependence on customer discretion, which leads to some of the highest rates of sexual harassment, discrimination in hiring and wages, and an aggressive environment that is normalized as ‘part of the job.’ The management structure often emphasizes profits over safety and pressures workers to tolerate inappropriate and sometimes dangerous settings. Lack of formal training or clearly defined incident reporting protocols leads to underreporting of injuries, illness, and incidents of harassment and discrimination. And inequitable hiring and scheduling practices often exclude minority populations from more lucrative positions and shifts. The relatively low-wages, variables hours, and pay that varies from week to week as much as 50%, leave workers vulnerable to economic crises and reliant on public services such as food assistance and public health insurance.
All of these aspects of restaurant work contribute to occupational injuries and illnesses and they have also been amplified during the Covid-19 pandemic. As we begin to reopen restaurants across the country, it is imperative that we consider these structural aspects of the work and provide adequate support for these workers. Restaurant workers need health insurance and paid sick time so that they can maintain healthy working conditions. Workers cannot be forced back to the job for fear of losing their unemployment benefits and be given time to care for their children and family members if needed. Additionally, we need to make sure that this large worker population has consistent and sufficient wages such that they can sustain during this time of economic catastrophe and into the future. At the very least, we need clear regulations and plans for enforcement at the federal and state levels and funding to support safe reopening of businesses that protect workers and the communities they serve.