A workers' rights group releases new findings.

Share story

The Seattle-area restaurant industry is healthy, a new study finds, while the situation of its workers is markedly less so. Sometimes this is literal. Released Thursday, October 29, the report by a group that organizes restaurant workers and advocates for their rights found that despite a law guaranteeing city restaurant workers paid sick leave, 73.5 percent don’t receive it, with 37.4 percent unaware of the existence of the law. (Two corollary statistics that restaurant-goers might find distressing: 58.8 percent of local restaurant industry workers report going to work while ill, and 28.8 percent have coughed or sneezed on food due to working sick.)

According to the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Seattle, the number of restaurants and bars in the Seattle area rose 27 percent between 2004 and 2014. The number of full-service restaurants in the city is up 23 percent since March 2014. Meanwhile, ROC-Seattle’s data found that 42.7 percent of all Seattle-area restaurant workers are earning poverty-level wages. And the vast majority of industry workers receive no workplace benefits, with 87.7 percent lacking employer-provided health coverage.

At a forum releasing the study at Capitol Hill’s Comet Tavern, Saru Jayaraman, co-director of the national umbrella organization ROC-United, said that despite having significantly better wages and benefits than other parts of the country, Seattle-area restaurant workers still face “tremendous challenges.”

The study also found that wage-law violations occur with regularity, including 20.5 percent of workers reporting having worked off the clock, without pay, in the last year. The industry’s scheduling practices for workers often effectively put them on-call, with 52.5 percent of tipped workers experiencing daily changes in their schedules.

Jayaraman called attention to a 'huge disparity by race' in Seattle-area restaurant industry wages and opportunities.”

Jayaraman called particular attention to what she termed a “huge disparity by race” in Seattle-area restaurant industry wages and opportunities. People of color make up 50 percent of the industry’s labor force, yet overall, white workers make $2 more an hour, and 70 percent of fine-dining servers are white. The wage gap between white males and people of color, male and female, is nearly $5 an hour.

Women, who represent 50 percent of industry workers, also receive lower pay overall and are often shut out of opportunities to work in higher-pay fine-dining positions, where they make up 22.6 percent of workers (compared to 57.2 percent in the casual full-service occupations).

Other speakers at the forum included City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who called the city’s current fine of $500 for wage theft by restaurants, applicable only at the second offense, a “stunning double-standard” compared to what restaurant employees face for stealing a small amount from the till. City council candidate Tammy Morales termed the city’s new Office of Labor Standards, charged with enforcing the Paid Sick & Safe Time Ordinance, “terribly underfunded” and called for the budget to be increased to $5 million. City council candidate Jon Grant also called for the OLS to be given “more teeth.”

David Mendoza, policy advisor for the mayor’s office, said at the forum that a new OLS ordinance is currently being finalized to help address the issues, including a provision to allow workers to file complaints about employers anonymously. Viet Shelton, communications director for the mayor’s office, said later that “By finalizing, we mean weeks away.”

A Washington Restaurant Association spokesperson said they’d not yet had an opportunity to review the study, but stated that its local branch, the Seattle Restaurant Alliance, “is dedicated to helping local restaurants learn how to navigate the [Paid Sick & Safe Time] law in order to be successful,” including advocating for funding for outreach and education to employers.

The report calls for a three-pronged approach of job training (especially for underrepresented groups), public policy, and consumer education and engagement about which restaurants support workers’ welfare and rights. The issues, Jayaraman also said, have been “intensified by the two-tiered system created by the minimum wage” — meaning inequities are exacerbated a lower minimum wage for tipped workers. She also urged restaurant owners, policy-makers and the public to “address, head-on, the issue of race and gender inequity” in the restaurant industry.

The ROC-Seattle report involved 524 worker surveys, along with other industry and government data.