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Having Safe Food Means Treating Restaurant Workers Better

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 19/02/2016 Joseph Erbentraut
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As Chipotle continues to reel from the food safety crisis that sickened hundreds of people and withered the fast-casual chain’s store sales and stock prices, one aspect of the company’s fall from glory has gone mostly overlooked.

The cause of two of the company’s six outbreaks were norovirus and Chipotle blamed these outbreaks on workers coming to work despite being sick. The company is one of just a few in the restaurant industry to offer workers paid sick leave and has reiterated in its response to the outbreaks that employees should utilize their paid leave and stay home when they’re ill.

That Chipotle’s policy was already in place at the time the outbreaks occurred, however, is part of a larger cultural problem in the industry. Only about 10 percent of restaurant workers have paid sick leave and 60 percent have reported coming to work sick, risking spreading a bug to both colleagues and customers, according to research from the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.

That’s the bad news, but there’s good news too. In Forked, a new book published this month, ROC United co-founder and co-director Saru Jayaraman draws on a wealth of research to spotlight not only which restaurants offer paltry wages and benefits to their employees, but also those employers -- both small and large -- that are doing the opposite.

These restaurants, designated by Jayaraman as "high road" employers, are offering paid sick leave, fair wages and upward internal mobility. And by doing so, she argues, they’re thriving.

Jayaraman recently spoke with The Huffington Post about the restaurant industry’s new normal.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Do you think readers of Forked will be surprised by the research you're uncovering, that so many employers are not offering their workers solid wages and benefits -- even in upscale restaurants?

This is my third book and my second book, Behind the Kitchen Door, kind of exposed the conditions in the industry. I think a lot of people who are reading this book may have read that book, so it’s not so much the conditions that are surprising to people. I think what is new and surprising is that there is actually a different way of doing business and quite a few folks are following it and it’s very profitable to follow that alternative way of doing business. It’s what we call the high road.

This misinformation has been spread for so long by the National Restaurant Association that it’s just not possible to provide good wages and benefits and still grow and thrive, that those kinds of policies will kill the industry. It’s the opposite of what so many fabulous employers are proving through their mere existence and growth. It has been accepted as a natural consequence that if you provide these wages and benefits, jobs will be lost, which is not true.

You’ve been working on these issues for some time now, but were there surprises for you as well as you researched this book?

I have to say two things in particular. One, I did a lot of research on the origins of the tipped minimum wage. It has a lot to do not just with wages but paid sick leave. If you do not get a minimum wage from your employer, you have to rely on tips and and have to go to work regardless of your condition to get those tips. And that reliance on tips is the source of so many issues, from poverty to sexual harassment to health issues. That it originated in slavery was a total shock to me and something I didn’t know.

And two, partly because of the book and partly because of our work over the last year, the high road path over the last year has become way more visible and more viable because of so many restaurateurs including Danny Meyerand Tom Colicchio talking to us over the last year and eliminating their tipped minimum wage. Chipotle talked with us and over the last year they’ve made big changes based on those conversations. It’s partly because of the book and parallel to the book. I’m shocked because in the last 15 years of organizing I’ve not seen so many instances where the high road has become so high-profile and visible and acceptable to restaurateurs throughout the country.

Do you think Chipotle's issues are helping people connect the dots on why paid sick leave is so critical not solely to workers’ health, but also the health of the customer and the business' success overall too?

I think it’s totally eye-opening what’s happening to Chipotle. The chain restaurants that are a part of the NRA seem pretty dug into their positions on paid sick leave. I have not seen if it will have an impact on their willingness to adopt it, but it doesn’t matter. Consumers and legislators and policymakers are moved by what’s happening at Chipotle and it will force the NRA to move in this direction. For so long we were hearing from the NRA that it was not possible, but Chipotle taking this stance proves it is. It proves it’s necessary, essential and has a terrible impact when we don’t do it.

Some media (including HuffPost) were cynical when Chipotle re-announced the paid leave policy this year as part of its food safety response. Is there reason to be skeptical that this is just a PR move?

I would say that the motivation doesn’t matter to me, whether it’s publicity or real, as long as the workers actually get the days and feel empowered to take them. I do see that problem with Starbucks. They publicize so much how great they are to their employees but a lot of it is completely false, especially because a lot of their workers don’t work enough hours to quality for the benefits they claim to provide. I would say in hearing from a lot of workers at Chipotle that it’s a large company, but we do see a lot more satisfaction among workers in general at Chipotle compared to the other large chain restaurants.

I’m still not completely happy with Chipotle’s pay rate, but as I think you read in our book, the high road is not a destination for us. We don’t expect every employer to be perfect and we don’t care why they do it as long as they do it, and doing it doesn’t mean they have to do it all at once. It’s about being on a road to the high road and continually striving to provide better benefits to workers.

How do consumers factor into this? If the prevailing belief is that better wages and benefits will cost us more when we're eating out, do you think more people are willing to help pay for it?

What I’m seeing is that most people just don’t know about most of these [lower wages and benefits] and I find the more that people know, the more they’re willing to engage on these issues. They’re pretty outraged by them and I do think they’re willing to pay more. But I think, again, it’s a fallacy promoted by the NRA that prices need to go way up to accommodate better benefits. In California, we have guaranteed sick days and much higher wages and the prices are definitely not higher here. I find myself spending more eating out when I travel than when I’m here in California.

And we’ve done a ton of research on this. It’s not just anecdotal. Menu prices are not actually higher in the seven states that have higher wages [for tipped workers] and the cities and states that offer guaranteed sick days. Even if there were menu pricing changes, I think consumers would be willing to pay for it, but I also think prices do not have to go up as much as the NRA would like you to believe.

Are you feeling hopeful others will be following the lead of Chipotle and the other high road employers you outline in the book? If so, what is the biggest source of your optimism?

Absolutely, I am feeling very, very optimistic about more and more states passing legislation that will raise both wages and provide benefits like paid sick days. This isn’t actually about moving every company to the high road restaurant by restaurant or company by company, it’s about getting policy passed that levels the playing field.

Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email joseph.erbentraut@huffingtonpost.com.

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