FRONT TO BACK
When you walk into a restaurant, you are entering a highly stratified society. The “front of the house”—hostesses, waiters, bartenders—are the people you see. The “back of the house”—busboys, dishwashers, cooks—are out of sight. Their pay structures are different. Their lifestyles are different. Their racial makeup is different.
The industry is among the nation’s fastest-growing employment sectors. One of 12 private-sector employees work in restaurants, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Along with waitstaff in restaurants and bars, positions in food preparation and at fast-food establishments are projected to grow 9 percent by 2020. These workers aren’t going to get rich—their positions make up seven of the country’s 10 lowest-paying jobs, according to Saru Jayaraman, cofounder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a national group that advocates for better working conditions in restaurants. Health insurance is a rarity. Advancement opportunities are few, and the work is often part-time.
These problems are less of an issue in the front of the house, particularly for employees at higher-end establishments. At “white table” restaurants, head chefs and servers can make upwards of $80,000 annually. Busboys make closer to $30,000 at the same places. At mid-range restaurants like Busboys in D.C. or Sudie’s in Texas, many waiters and hostesses aren’t making a career out of their jobs. Often they are students or recent graduates just looking for a way to pay the bills while they figure out what to do with their lives.
That’s not to say the front of the house has it easy. Jayaraman is quick to point out that too many waiters in casual or chain restaurants depend on their server jobs to make ends meet, and they earn subsistence wages. But it is also true that the front of the house has greater wage-growth potential, based on tipping, and its denizens have an easier time shifting jobs.
Racial segregation is a fact of life. The front of the house often is white, while the back of the house is populated with immigrants and other people of color. There is a $4-an-hour wage gap between white restaurant workers and minorities in the industry, according to Jayaraman.
Jayaraman has studied discrimination in restaurants. From 2006 to 2009, her group sent paired applicants, one white person and one person of color with equal credentials, to apply for 200 New York City restaurant jobs. They found that white applicants were twice as likely to get the good-paying front-of-the-house jobs in fine-dining restaurants, even when they put on thick accents. Jayaraman’s research also shows that workers of color are overrepresented in the lower-paying jobs—server, busser, dishwasher—and in fast-food establishments, which pay far less than fancy restaurants.
In the kitchen, life is different. It’s stuffy, steamy, and cramped, and you’re never too far from a fryer spitting oil. For the newly arrived immigrant, it is just the place to prove yourself. For the owner, an eager worker who doesn’t complain about the sweat, the grease fires, and the minimum wage is a godsend. His legal status in the country is so irrelevant that nobody mentions it.
“Everybody, everybody in the restaurant industry employs undocumented workers,” Jayaraman says. The most difficult restaurant jobs, such as dishwasher or fry cook, are usually filled by word-of-mouth references from other restaurant owners and the trusted kitchen staff, also a natural way of communicating in the immigrant community.
Managers say they are grateful for references because it minimizes disruption and turnover. The loss of a dishwasher mid-shift can be more devastating to a restaurant’s operations than a head chef or a hostess walking out. Even so, dishwashers are also paid the least. The median hourly wage for dishwashers is $8.73, about half of the national median of $16.27 an hour. Cooks make $10.65 an hour, and first-line supervisors make $14.21 an hour, according to the Labor Department.
Estimates of the number of unauthorized workers in the restaurant industry are hazy and probably too conservative. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, more than one of 10 restaurant workers are undocumented, and a much higher percentage work in the lowest-skilled back-of-the-house jobs. Undocumented dishwashers make up 27 percent of the workforce, and undocumented cooks are at 18 percent. By way of comparison, other private-sector jobs have less than 5 percent unauthorized workers.
In Southwest states such as Arizona or Texas, the back of the house is almost without exception Hispanic. A hiring manager at Sudie’s could not remember a single black or white applicant for a kitchen job. Even in melting pots such as New York and Washington, Hispanics are so prevalent in kitchens that native English-speaking restaurant managers must know “kitchen Spanish.”