Racial Discrimination Runs Deep in the Restaurant Industry

The restaurant industry’s racial bias has analysts at the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education calling out an “occupational Jim Crow” system where white workers are much more likely to get tip-earning “front of the house” positions, while managers relegate employees of color to less visible, lower-wage “back of the house” jobs.

“Basically, the farther into a restaurant you go, the skin color gets darker,” Berkeley Professor of Public Policy Saru Jayaraman told the San Francisco Chronicle. “The system is broken, and it has to change.”

Jayaraman is the co-founder of the nonprofit food service advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC). Their recent report on racial discrimination in the restaurant industry found Black and Latinx restaurant workers face significant, systemic segregation from the better-paying food and beverage service jobs. Oakland restaurant worker Joel Leon told KQED, “I have been denied a lot of times by restaurants for server positions, and they've always offered me back of house positions, such as dishwasher or busser.”

What happens in restaurants is not just the minor matter of what high school and college students face in their part-time jobs. The restaurant industry now employs 13 million Americans, and is poised to become the fourth-largest employment sector of the U.S. economy. Its workforce has skewed toward fewer teens and more adults for years. In the higher-end field of fine dining, workers can earn as much as $80,000 or more annually.

Employees of color comprise 70 percent of the restaurant industry in California, but overwhelmingly receive lower-paying, back of the house jobs.

A previous ROC study found that Oakland and San Francisco Bay Area restaurants were the most wage-segregated in the country. “There is a $5.50 wage gap between white workers and workers of color in the Bay Area,” Jayaraman told KQED after the release of that report. “That [gap] is larger than Houston, Texas’s race-wage gap in the restaurant industry. It’s larger than Seattle’s race-wage gap. It’s larger than every other region in the United States.”

Over the course of a year, that gap adds up to an $11,000 difference. Employer discrimination is probably not the only reason for this discrepancy. Some workers may self-segregate, by declining to apply for positions where they may feel they’re less likely to be hired. In other cases, it could be a reflection of customer preference toward white servers.

"We've heard of a lot of stories where the customer actually asked for a different server, because they had a hard time understanding the accent of whoever the server is," said Chris Benner, a UC Santa Cruz professor who co-wrote the earlier ROC study. Those analyses mostly covered the California restaurant industry. But a separate ROC study showed that restaurant discrimination is a national phenomenon. They assessed 273 fine-dining establishments in Detroit, Chicago, and New Orleans. Those cities are particularly relevant because they’re majority-minority cities, or cities whose populations are predominantly non-white.

ROC performed more than 400 “matched pair audit tests” of white applicants and applicants of color. In plain language, that means they sent pairs of equally qualified white and nonwhite candidates to apply at fine dining restaurants to see if there were notable differences in hiring patterns.

Unsurprisingly, race was a very significant factor. “When equally qualified minority and white job-seekers applied for wait-staff positions in fine dining restaurants, the average minority applicant was only 73% as likely as a white applicant to be offered a job, and was less likely than a white applicant to receive a job interview in the first place,” the study found.

Black restaurant workers face even greater structural disadvantages than Latinx workers in the higher-paying fine dining sector.

"For African-American workers, it's almost 100 percent exclusion from [fine dining restaurants] altogether," Jayaraman told NPR. "They work almost exclusively at fast-food restaurants or very casual restaurants like Red Lobster."

Workers of color do manage to score some of those sought-after tipped server and bar positions, but the racial pay disparities continue even in the front of the house. When considering livable wage, or the minimum amount necessary to meet one’s basic financial needs, ROC’s latest study found that 51% of white bartenders and 45% of white servers in the Bay Area earn livable wages — but only 28% of bartenders and servers of color earned that wage.

The city of Oakland is among the first to try to erase these racial disparities in the restaurant sector. Mayor Libby Schaaf and councilperson Nikki Fortunato Bas are proposing certain tax cuts and licensing incentives to restaurants that complete equity training programs designed to reduce racial bias. These elected officials haven’t written or submitted this legislation yet, but the fact that they’re acknowledging and talking about it is an encouraging sign.

"With the restaurant industry being a core part of our economy, with Oakland being a food destination, I think it's really important to make sure that we're making this industry as equitable as possible," Bas told KQED.

But the restaurant industry, as it stands now, pays people of color significantly less, gives them fewer promotions, and keeps them conspicuously hidden from public view. This has been proven even among equally qualified employees. Minority workers make up the majority of the growing restaurant industry, but they’re getting an ever-smaller piece of the pie.

About the Author

Joe Kukura is a San Francisco freelance writer covering the intersection of cannabis policy and social justice for The North Star and SF Weekly. His work has previously appeared in Thrillist and the Daily Dot, and you can follow him on Twitter @ExercisingDrunk.