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Coming soon to a restaurant menu near you: Livable wages

Cross-posted from Crain’s Chicago Business

Mario Batali at a book signing

High profile chef Mario Batali has begun to reform restaurant worker conditions.

In the trend-conscious restaurant industry, foodies are asking questions not only about whether their beef was raised humanely and whether their asparagus is organic, but also about the working conditions of those who prepare and serve their food.

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a New York City-based workers’ rights advocacy group, has studied the industry with an eye toward both improving working conditions and allowing restaurateurs to thrive. “Our whole frame is around collective prosperity,” ROC co-founder Saru Jayaraman told me recently, “that when workers do better, employers and consumers do better.”

Ms. Jayaraman’s organization has designed a collection of policy proposals that business leaders in the industry — which employs 10 million people — can support. Their goal is to make it attractive to provide paid sick days, offer low-paid workers opportunities to rise through the ranks, and for employers to pay a share of their employees’ health insurance.

Raising the tipped-employee hourly wage from its stagnant $2.13 level is another proposal, one that is currently before Congress as a national bill.

Several high-profile restaurateurs are joining ROC United in its commitment to making restaurant jobs more economically viable — in other words, more like careers. “I think everybody should have health insurance,” celebrity chef and restaurateur Tom Colicchio said in a recent interview. “The idea of the transient employee, the college student waiting tables, that’s not how we operate. People have families to take care of.”

ROC United has put together an up-to-date national guide to restaurants that treat their employees well.

High-road employers like Mr. Colicchio are unfortunately still in the minority — 90 percent of restaurant workers don’t have any paid sick days, and 75 percent of the workers surveyed by ROC United said they have never been given the opportunity to apply for a promotion. But as groups like ROC United educate the eating public about the dangers of a chronically underpaid workforce with no ability to take sick leave preparing and serving food, more industry leaders are beginning to see the wisdom in promoting employee wellness and better career options.

Another celebrity chef, Mario Batali — owner of Del Posto in New York City — is an example. Once publicly targeted by dissatisfied employees, Mr. Batali has now agreed to create new promotions policies and to institute paid sick days for his employees at Del Posto.

Food culture has taken off in Chicago; the ROC United 2013 “high-road employers” list for the city already includes several foodie destinations like Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique, Pilsen’s Lupito’s Juice Bar, and Lincoln Park’s Siena by Maria café — as well as one restaurant chain, Houlihan’s. Here’s hoping that Chicago’s richly varied restaurant community can add more names in the coming year.

Photo by Charles Haynes released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.

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Amy B. Dean

Amy B. Dean