Shanita Morris was working as a server at a restaurant in New York City when one of her regulars, an older man, came in. He was always a little flirty, but that day was different. “I was walking by and he just took it upon himself to say, ‘Hey little black girl, do you have enough milk in those jugs for my coffee?’”
She immediately went to her manager who told her not to worry about it because she was one of the restaurant’s best servers, and they'd take care of her. They didn’t.
As weeks and then months went by, Morris continued to complain to management whenever she was sexually harassed. She relied on tips to earn a living, so it was difficult to tell customers to back off, for fear that she might not be able to pay her rent. “Different situations kept happening, and I kept complaining,” she says.
In response, her employer began knocking her hours, offering the better shifts to the female workers who were “extra-flirty,” says Morris. Meanwhile, she eventually went from working five to six days a week to just two days a week, and wasn’t making nearly enough to pay rent in New York City.
The food industry (restaurants, food processing plants, farms) employs some 21.5 million people, making it easily the largest employer in the U.S. As such, it’s an industry with the most to lose — or gain, depending upon who you’re talking to — under a new administration. Wages, treatment of workers, and unionization are all on the line.
Worker advocacy group Food Chain Workers Alliance has published a new report detailing the highs and lows of current food workers around wages, food security, health and safety, harassment, and other challenges. Long story short: The outlook isn’t great.
The report, No Piece of the Pie: US Food Workers in 2016, is a comprehensive look at data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Census, with an added perspective from advocates for food service workers. The bad news is this: Hourly wages are not rising very much, which negatively impacts not just restaurant and food workers, but the economy at large.
“Since 2010, the hourly median wage went from $9.90 to $10 an hour,” says Joann Lo, executive director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. “The food system pays the lowest hourly median wage of all industries in the country. At the same time, one out of every seven U.S. workers is in the food system. It’s a huge part of our economy.”
In other words, improve wages, and the economy will benefit overall.
Wages did go up in some parts of the country last Tuesday. Voters in Arizona, Colorado, Washington, and Maine all approved ballot measures that would increase minimum wages in the respective states. As for a higher federal minimum wage? That likely won’t happen any time soon. The official GOP platform under Trump suggests that minimum wage, which restaurant workers around the country would like to see rise, “should be handled at the state and local level." Some states may fight to raise it while others may keep it at the federal minimum, which is $7.25 and has not risen since 2009.
Pay is even lower for women and minorities. According to the Food Chain Workers Alliance, for every dollar earned by white men working in the food chain, Asian men earn 81 cents, Latino men 76 cents, Black men 60 cents, and Native American men 44 cents. White women earn less than half of their white male counterparts, at 47 cents to every dollar. Women of color face both a racial and a gender penalty: Asian women earn 58 cents, Latina women 45 cents, Black women 42 cents, and Native American women 36 cents for every dollar earned by white men.
“One of our key findings, which is really a sad irony, is that 4.3 million food workers are food insecure,” says Lo. In fact, 13 percent of food workers rely on SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamp) benefits. “So the rate of food workers using SNAP benefits compared to workers in all other industries has actually increased in the past five years.” As Eater has previously reported, government funding of food assistance programs like SNAP hangs in the balance under President Trump.
More bad news? Worker discrimination, like what Morris described, is at an all-time high. Even worse, it’s expected to increase in the current political climate.
“We think that because of the way that Trump has talked about people of color, Muslims, immigrants, and women, the discrimination against those types of workers will likely increase,” says Lo, who notes that FCWA is a non-profit and non-partisan organization. “So the wage gap between them and white men will likely increase in the next four years.”
For her part, Morris isn’t overly concerned about a Trump presidency. “I personally don't think he’s going to do anything that bad, Hopefully he’s good for us. His business mindset might be good for us. I’m optimistic.”
But Lo says her organization expects other forms of discrimination — like hiring practices, promotions, and sexual harassment — to increase in the next four years.
“Additionally, we believe it’s going to get harder for workers to successfully organize into a union,” she says. That’s because Trump is likely to appoint people onto the National Labor Relations Board (the federal organization that oversees union votes) that are less friendly to workers. Changes in legal mechanisms and regulations — like a probable increase in right-to-work state laws and potentially a federal right-to-work law — could also make it harder for workers to organize and join a union.
So, is there a bright side for food workers? Lo says yes. For one thing, hers and other organizations are already campaigning to fix the restaurant industry’s two-tiered wage system, in which tipped workers make less than non-tipped workers (the problem being that those who rely on tips are often subject to sexual harassment).
More workers are also fighting to unionize. If things get worse, she says, their voices will only get louder.
“It’s possible, because their jobs will likely get worse in terms of labor and working conditions,” says Lo. “That it will push workers to organize more. When you’re in a terrible situation, what else can you do? Because of this Trump Presidency, more and more people, and organizations, and communities will come together — because we’ll have no other choice.”