Raising the minimum wage and changing workplace culture could help.
With almost 11 million employees, the restaurant industry is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the United States, but it is also one of the lowest paying—restaurant workers in general are three times as poor as the rest of the U.S. workforce. Within the industry, workers of color are even worse off. They are twice as likely to live in poverty than their white counterparts.
This is because people of color are far more likely to be relegated to the lowest-wage and back-end jobs in casual restaurants, instead of fine-dining opportunities that pay better, according to a recent report from Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.
"Minority populations are systematically denied access to these livable-wage positions," says Teófilo Reyes, the organization's national research director. Employees of color face "glass ceilings, low floors and locked doors" in American restaurants, according to Reyes.
To prove that this earnings gap exists, the researchers first analyzed Census data. They found that workers of color and non-naturalized immigrants pay a hefty "tax" in the form of earnings that are as much as 57 percent lower than their white counterparts.
The researchers then canvassed 273 fine-dining restaurants, confirming the maitre d's, bartenders, servers and hosts were predominantly white (and in many of those positions, they were in fact white men).
The rest—the immigrants and people of color—earn far less in positions such as bussers, dishwashers, or cashiers.
"You have a situation where the workers who are bringing the food to your table can’t afford to feed themselves,” says Reyes.
To improve these circumstances, the report recommends that states raise the minimum wage and that employers follow. States that have already done so have benefited, and so has the restaurant industry in those states, Reyes says.
The study also reveals that the industry's hiring and promoting practices are often discriminatory. The researchers tested for discrimination in hiring in three diverse U.S. cities—Chicago, Detroit and New Orleans—cities where around 40 percent of restaurant employees are minorities. In each city, they sent out trained white and minority restaurant professionals to apply for the same positions. So that there was no question of eligibility, they made it so that the applicant of color was slightly more qualified.
The results varied by city, but in general, minority applicants were only 73 percent as likely to get the job, and also less likely to get a call-back for an interview.
Chicago fared the worst out of the three cities they tested—qualified minority applicants were only half as likely to get job offers there.
A few years back, Rameka Aton tried a similar test of her own. Aton, a 30-year-old black woman, has been working in the restaurant industry for ten years. At the time, she was applying for positions at fine-dining spots in downtown Chicago. Despite having experience and being highly qualified (Aton has a certificate as a level-one sommelier), she wasn't having any luck. She suspected it was because with all her applications, she was asked to send in a photo of herself—a photo that revealed her race. To prove her theory, for one of the jobs she applied she sent in a photo of a white girlfriend of hers with her résumé. She got a call from the restaurant the same day.
"That was kind of a blatant example to me that discrimination is actually very real and very much a part of the hiring process," says Aton, who now tends bar at Dugan's Pub and is a member of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United in Chicago.
At the fine-dining places she has worked, Aton says she's often the only black woman. And once she is hired, climbing up the ladder hasn't been easy. Often times it's not how well you do, but who you're friends with that gets you promoted, she says.
Hiring and promotion processes in many industries tend to reflect the social networks of current employees. In predominantly white fine dining restaurants, it can be especially difficult for people from other backgrounds to break in. To combat this, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United recommends standardizing hiring and promotion protocol.
But even if management wants to diversify, they may hesitate to do so based on perceptions of customer preferences.
"[The fine-dining restaurants] want their establishment to represent their clients, who are predominantly white," Aton says. African-American workers, specifically, make up only 6 percent of the fine-dining workforce, which is low even compared to other minorities. (Latinos, for instance, make up 17 percent.)
The higher salaries fine-dining establishments offer employees are often used as an example to justify a low minimum-wage policy, Reyes says—but a close look at who is getting these salaries makes the imbalance clear. High prices already limit the diversity of customers who frequent expensive restaurants. Aton points out that dress codes, like those banning baggy pants, can do the same. And once a homogenous clientele is seated at the bar, keeping them happy might mean leaving stereotypes intact.