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Fair Treatment for Restaurant Staff: The New Food Ethics

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We pay a lot of attention to the food we eat. We look for words on the label like “natural,” “sustainable,” “organic,” and “free-range.” Every other restaurant menu reads like it’s trying to sell fine jewelry, specifying each component’s point of origin.
 
Local, sustainable, free trade, ethically sourced.
 
But eating ethically is about a lot more than just knowing and caring about where your food comes from … it’s also about knowing who’s serving it to you.
 
Millions of Americans work in restaurants, from fast-food joints to the French Laundry, and restaurants are not exactly known for their generous or comfortable working conditions. Restaurant workers do not, as a rule, get paid sick time. If they receive tips, they are paid far less than the state-mandated minimum wage, they don’t get health benefits, and most don’t belong to a union. They often do not get to take breaks or do any of the things that those of us who sit at desks take for granted.
 
Since restaurants are businesses where most employees are not intending to make a career, owners try to justify withholding these simple (and often legally required) accommodations. To be sure—some restaurant owners provide health benefits and treat their employees like family, but let’s be honest. Most don’t. And since restaurant workers tend to be disproportionally poor, young, and without other options, the owners get away with it.
 
A new advocacy group called the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United has just released a report that ranks restaurants—from the tiniest burger joint to the fanciest steakery—on how well they treat their employees. The establishments were judged on whether they offered paid sick leave, whether they paid minimum wage, and whether workers had a chance to advance in the company. Most restaurants, not surprisingly, did poorly.
 
There were a few bright spots: chains Five Guys Burgers, In-N-Out Burger, Houlihan’s, and some well-known independent eateries scored well. But the vast majority of restaurants, including some of the most expensive and trafficked restaurants in the country, did not meet ROC’s minimum standards of workplace fairness. You can download the Diner’s Guide here, and see if your favorite chain restaurant or local establishment made the cut.
 
Ethical food is about more than just the provenance of beef or the seasonality of tomatoes. What does it matter how local your free-range chicken is if the server who brings it to your table is forced to share her tips with the manager and can’t afford to put dinner on her own table? It’s time we started paying attention to all the aspects of food. 

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