Restaurant Work in NYC: Tough Jobs for Women and People of Color

A New Lecture: “Anti-Black Discrimination in the Age of Obama” by Dr. Algernon Austin

The simplistic idea that impoverished African Americans have only themselves to blame for their poverty, due to their poor cultural values—a notion advanced by many, including black public figures such as Bill Cosby—is believable only if a blind eye is turned to those inconvenient things social scientists like to call “facts.” Algernon Austin soundly refutes the “culture of poverty” argument by paying careful attention to marco-economic data about long-term poverty trends and sociological case studies about persistent discrimination. In other words, unlike the glib punditry, Austin actually looks at the “facts.”
--Dr. Andrew Hartman, professor and audience member, Illinois State University

Contact Dr. Austin to arrange a speaking engagement.

Restaurant workers rate their work among the lowest in job satisfaction. A new report The Great Service Divide: Occupational Segregation and Inequality in the New York City Restaurant Industry [PDF] by the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York shows some reasons why this might be—particularly for women and people of color. The report documents in great detail racial and gender-based discrimination both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Although “the [restaurant] industry employed an estimated 12.8 million workers nationwide, making it the nation’s largest employer outside of government,” reading The Great Service Divide one gets that sense that the industry still operates by the rules of the Wild West. Employers and high-paid restaurant workers seem to be able to do whatever they want, at least in New York City.

Practices toward women are blatantly sexist, if not outright violations of sex discrimination law. Here are some actual “job descriptions”:
Hello Ladies!: “Do you have a fit appearance? Are you naturally cute or just drop dead gorgeous? Like being flirtatious? Is provocative and demure your natural aura? Like to get a little wild? Please respond with recent picture (must be within the last 3 months)…”

Wine Enthusiast: “…Seeking attractive, outgoing, wine enthusiast to recommend and serve fine wines… enjoy stimulating conversation with upscale clientele… experience a plus, but not necessary, will train. Please forward resume with photo.”
The authors of the report point out that when employers rely heavily on appearance for the women they hire but not for men, they are, in fact, violating the law.

In addition to the sexism of job descriptions for women that read like escort ads, there are other gender-related problems. It is mainly white men who decide who is and is not attractive, which means that it is mainly white women, U.S.-born and European-born, who are deemed attractive. Generally, it is only the most exceptionally beautiful nonwhite women, by mainstream standards, who make it into the higher-paying front-of-the-house positions in the elite New York City restaurants.

After reading the “job descriptions,” it is not surprising to find that women experience sexual harassment.
One woman recalled her employer saying, “Come in something low cut, something sexy baby.” Another female recounted a similar experience, stating she was sent home for coming in with a turtleneck. When asked what happened when sexual harassment occurred, one male worker said, “Obviously management’s not going to do anything about it because it’s management doing it most of the time…It’s huge, and it stems from the top.”
Because sexism and sexual harassment seems to pervade the industry, many women feel that there is little that they can do about it.

The Great Service Divide also documents discrimination through audit or matched pair tests. When sending matched pairs of white and testers of color out to apply for work, testers of color were less likely to be granted an interview and those who did receive interviews were then less likely to be hired as waiters or waitresses in New York City’s elite restaurants. The tests were designed so that the person of color would be slightly more qualified than the white person.

Analyzing 2000 Census data, the researchers found that female workers earned 21.8 percent less than comparable male workers. Workers of color earned 11.6 percent less than white workers, and immigrant workers earned 9.7 percent less than non-immigrants.

The Great Service Divide provides a rich and insightful look into the scary world of New York City restaurant work. As the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York shows, the restaurant industry needs a great deal of monitoring and regulation. The report concludes with detailed policies for employers and policymakers.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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