Recently, general food service workers across the nation went on strike in order to protest low wages and lack of benefits, calling for an increase of the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 per hour. Many in the media were quick to point out that these are unskilled positions that should not be highly paid, and are not what many consider to be careers. Furthermore, anecdotally, several of my highly-trained cook and chef peers (excluding executive and sous chefs) expressed resentment over the proposed raise in pay for all food service laborers, feeling that it diminished their own worth as more skilled kitchen workers, as the suggested $15 per hour is equal to or greater than their current pay rate in this area, no matter their years of restaurant cooking expertise or culinary schooling.
I’m not here to suggest that minimum pay should necessarily be doubled, but I definitely feel that consumers do need to be more aware of some of the practices behind closed doors in the food industry.
You may have noticed that I am making reference to “food service workers” rather than “fast-food workers,” which were actually the ones to go on strike. That is because the problems which plague the fast-food world are indicative of food careers in general. The reality is low pay, long hours, and no health benefits, the only perk being an occasional reduced-price (or if you’re lucky, free) meal — often for several years, until a minor advancement in position is made or an individual is able to leave behind food preparation jobs altogether — and many people outside the industry think that’s fair. Perhaps those people work hard in this economy to make $40,000 or more per year and receive little to no benefits themselves, so conclude, “Why should a ‘burger flipper’ get some benefits?”
Well, the “more privileged” public likely doesn’t have the concern looming overhead of the possibility of getting hundreds or thousands of innocent people ill by going into work sick (especially at this time of year and with the flu currently running rampant), because of sick days not being offered. Why would an individual attend their job while “under the weather,” risking the health of countless others? The answer is that, like employees of any other underpaid profession, if an individual doesn’t work all of their assigned hours for the week, they may not be able to feed their family, buy gas for their car, heat their house, or pay their rent. For a food laborer, a drop in just one week’s hours, from 30 to 5, can have detrimental effects. Paid sick days have attained an almost mythical status within the field, especially in less populated areas, and with rapid inflation across the board (thus increasing all other expenses), that means extra work is required just to stay afloat, in spite of illness. Many food service workers live on the edge, paycheck to paycheck, with little to no way of escaping their predicament. And society at large seems fine with that, as long as consumers can get their one dollar burgers.
The current trend in more upscale establishments is for patrons to inquire about a product’s potential allergens, country of origin, or quality grade, yet they neglect to even spare a thought about the individuals dedicating a lifetime to the culinary arts in order to provide them with the product they desire. It’s also disconcerting to me that consumers continue patronizing establishments that routinely demonstrate the priority of profit over customer care, rather than emphasizing the diner’s experience.
We are all trying to do more with less money, that is the reality in both our personal lives and in the way restaurants run. However, the same restaurants that value money over positive public experiences are also the ones that devalue the very workers that are the integral “cogs” that keep them in business and running smoothly.
No one knows if the minimum wage will indeed be raised, but in the interim there are actions you as a consumer can take to positively affect the food service environment. Instead of going back to that typical steakhouse chain or boring burger joint, visit local restaurants where the service is professional and the food delicious. With price hikes across all national food chains over the past decade, many have become slightly pricey, making eating locally ever more affordable. Chances are, more of the bill you are paying is going towards higher staff wages (and higher-quality food) at these smaller, often more “homey” establishments.