Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University, wrote a piece for the latest issue of The Atlantic magazine called “Six Rules for Dining Out.” The article is meant to be a Freakonomics-type guide to getting good deals at restaurants, but we balked at Rule #2: “Exploit Restaurant Workers.”
Cowen writes under that heading:
Quality food is cheaper when cheap labor is available to cook it. In a relatively wealthy country like the United States, cheap labor can be hard to find. We have a high level of labor productivity and a minimum wage; in some cases even illegal immigrants earn more than the legal minimum…The upshot is that these restaurants tend to offer good food buys.
The polar-opposite case is when you see a restaurant replete with expensive labor. There’s a valet-parking attendant, a host to greet you, a person to take your coat, a sommelier, a floor manager, a team of waiters, and so on. If you go, for instance, to the Palm, a fancy steak-house chain, you’ll see a lot of people at work. Everyone is scurrying around, and you have the feeling that management puts a lot of time and effort into coordinating the large staff…I like quality service, but only when I am steered toward better items on the menu or when I reap some other concrete benefit rather than just feeling fancy. I’m not sure what I am getting from the service at the Palm…
Now, we want to give Professor Cowen the benefit of the doubt, that he just wants to give some consumer tips and slipped up with his wording. But this column displays some basic inhumanity to restaurant workers that bears examination.
“Exploit restaurant workers?” Don’t worry, Professor, they are already being exploited. A lot. And the exploitation of those workers endangers their health, your health, and the economy at large.
Those people at the Palm restaurant who Cowen sees “scurrying around” are, according to statistics, struggling a great deal no matter how much he pays for his steak. The federal subminimum wage for tipped workers, many of whom work in restaurants, is $2.13 an hour – and it has not gone up in 21 years. George H.W. Bush was President last time that number moved.
Some states have instituted slightly higher figures, but even those are slipping: there was a recent effort in Florida, strongly backed by the restaurant lobby, to decrease the subminimum wage of $4.65 back down to the federal level. It’s no wonder that 7 out of the 10 lowest paid jobs in the United States, according to DOL data, are in the restaurant industry.
What if one of those little “scurriers” gets sick? Too bad. 87 percent of restaurant workers can’t earn sick days, and 90 percent don’t have health insurance through their employer. It’s no wonder that t 63 percent of restaurant workers report cooking, preparing, or serving food while sick. As Meghana Reddy of the Restaurant Opportunities Center writes: “if exploiting restaurant workers is how you get a cheap meal, then you should know you are also putting your health as a consumer in jeopardy for a cheap meal as well.”
By almost any metric – the ability to seek recourse for sexual and racial discrimination, workplace safety, job security – restaurant workers are already some of the most exploited workers in the United States. These workers are less able to support families, pay back loans, and participate fully in the economy. It costs the taxpayer too – restaurant servers are twice as likely to be on food stamps.
Rather than seek out restaurants with cheap labor, consumers should care that the people preparing and serving their food are treated fairly, paid well, and have the ability to stay home if they get sick. We strongly recommend to Professor Cowen the ROC-United Diners’ Guide, which empowers us to support responsible restaurants when we dine out. We’ve had enough exploitation. Let’s have some new rules for dining out.