"I'm so honored that you've all chosen me over the president," Saru Jayaraman joked to several dozen people assembled at Queen Bee's Art & Cultural Center in North Park. She was there to give a talk on her book, Behind the Kitchen Door, on January 28, during the same Tuesday-evening time slot as Obama’s state of the union address.
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The lecture began with a brief video introducing the book's premise: despite advancements in the way diners have come to know their food and demand superior products, most consumers either don't understand or don't acknowledge the low pay and low quality of life most of the workers in the restaurant industry face.
Jayaraman, who describes herself as a "card carrying foodie" who grew up in Mira Mesa before moving to Los Angeles in high school, has spent the past 13 years advocating for food service workers and is the co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, a collective of workers, consumers, and employers working "to improve wages and working conditions for the nation’s restaurant workforce."
According to Jayaraman, the restaurant industry is the second-largest in the nation and is the fastest-growing sector of the economy — one in 12 workers in the U.S. are currently employed in food service.
A September 2013 Center on Policy Initiatives report claimed that food and hotel work is the seventh-largest segment of the San Diego job market, with just over 55,000 year-round, full-time employees. It's also the lowest-paying industry, with the average full-time worker earning $26,040 per year, well above the federal poverty line of $11,161 but below the $27,733 the group states is the bare minimum for an average single adult in San Diego to live alone.
"The lowest-paying jobs, below farm work, really those at the bottom of the heap year after year, are the ones for those we're paying to touch and cook our food," observes Jayaraman. "How is it that you've got the largest and fastest growing industry in America proliferating the absolute lowest-paying jobs?"
Seventy percent of tip-earning workers, Jayaraman said, are women. While those women make up only 7 percent of the female workforce, they account for 37 percent of all sexual harassment claims filed annually.
"So many women in our surveys report they've been sent home because they're not 'sexy' enough, they're not showing enough cleavage, they're not showing enough skin," Jayaraman said.
Also addressed was the lack of a mandate that employers provide mandatory sick days. Local state assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez recently introduced Assembly Bill 1522, which would require employers to award one hour of sick pay for every 30 hours worked, with employees being able to bank a maximum of three sick days. While the bill has weaker provisions than others introduced in recent years that have died in committee, Center on Policy Initiatives executive director Clare Crawford told the crowd that neither she nor Gonzalez held high hopes for the legislation gaining serious consideration in the next session.
Jayaraman said she's faced frequent confrontation from industry leaders who describe their entire workforce as "young people who are moving onto something better."
"I find it hilarious that you've got a whole industry that says 'anything else out there is better than our industry,'" she says. "And they want to be the only industry in America that doesn't actually have to pay their own workers' wages. They want their customers to pay their employees' wages."
Also present for a discussion panel was Neli Whatley, a restaurant server at the La Jolla Marriott who related her struggles in becoming one of the few Latinas in her industry as well as her disappointment at continuing to earn minimum wage after 14 years on the job.
"I love my work. It's so important to me to provide quality service to my customers," Whatley said, “but it's so hard, faced with rising rent and the cost of food to keep making do with no raise."
Christine Perez, owner of the Madeline Café in South Park, also sat on the panel, representing an example of a responsible restaurateur. Despite paying her employees a higher rate, Perez says that lower turnover and the ability to coax a higher level of performance from her staff has allowed her business to remain profitable.
"I feel like I ask them for 110 percent, and so I have to be able to give back to them," says Perez.
Jayaraman's group has partnered with actor Danny Glover to develop The Welcome Table, a consumer site still in its infancy that aims to list restaurants that have positive employment practices, as well as those with a high level of complaints.