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Wage Disparity in Restaurants Sparks Advocacy for Equitable Pay

John Cuvillier started working in kitchens at 15 years old at Auntie Anne’s in Brownsville, Texas. By 19,  Cuvillier, who uses they/them pronouns, was the vice president of one of a handful of successful restaurant workers’ associations in the country. 

 

And at 21, Cuvillier is a staunch advocate and leader calling for measures to mitigate inequitable labor standards between front- and back-of-house workers. 

 

On March 23, 2018, President Trump amended the Fair Labor Standards Act to allow employers to include kitchen staff, also known as “back of house” workers, in a tip pool. But for many workers, state regulations supersede federal law. Statutes in Texas and New York State, for example, specify that tips can be distributed only to the workers who provided the service. 

 

Back of house workers–chefs, line cooks, dishwashers–don’t count. 

 

Glenn Grindlinger, a partner specializing in wage and hour law at the firm Fox Rothschild, explained that when the New York law was written half a century ago, it was mainly to prevent employers from taking a cut of employees’ tips. It didn’t occur to anybody at the time, he says, for back of house workers to get them, too. As bussers–front of house workers who set and clear tables–began to receive tips, however, it raised the question of whether back of house deserved a share as well. 

 

But it’s complicated. 

 

“The fear is while helping one group, the back of house, you end up hurting the front of house,” said Grindlinger. “And nobody wants to do that.”

 

For a restaurant worker to receive tips in these states, they must have direct interaction with the customers. And in most cases, back of house workers don’t fit the bill. 

 

But Andrew Rigie, founder and executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, which advocates for fair labor laws in the hospitality industry, says tips are based on the dining experience as a whole, not just face-to-face contact. If the food comes out cold, or poor quality, it falls on kitchen workers. 

 

But because they cannot receive tips, back of house workers bear the consequences–good or bad. 

 

“It really sucks because [kitchen workers] were making the same amount of money during rush hour as we were during quiet hours, versus front of house, who generally get more tips when there’s more business,” said Cuvillier, referring to his previous workplace, a pizza shop in Austin. “We also had takeout tips…but those would go to the front of house as well, even though the only thing they’re doing is giving the order to the driver.”

 

Over the years since the pandemic, the costs of operating restaurants have surged. To keep up, owners often charge diners higher prices, which results in a higher average customer check, Rigie said. And if a customer is leaving the same percentage tip on that check as they did before the prices were raised, the front of house worker gets bigger tips, exacerbating that disparity further.

 

Jonathan Forgash, co-founder and executive director of Queens Together, an advocacy association connecting restaurants with community resources, is also working to improve the rights of restaurant workers. 

 

While Rigie believes that restaurants should have the option to share tips with back of house, Forgash thinks it should be mandatory.

 

“Front of house shouldn’t be making great money if the back of house is being underpaid banging out dishes,” said Forgash. “Tips should be shared, end of story.”

 

Barbara Sibley, a New York City-based chef at La Palapa, and advocate for fair labor standards for restaurant workers, said that inequity between front and back of house is one of the most significant issues in the industry. During the height of the pandemic, she says, the tip-sharing dynamic was temporarily amended–and successfully. 

 

“Everyone was participating in delivery, and it was wonderful being able to share tips with my back of house, because everyone was front-facing and back-facing,” Sibley said. “So it was great to use a moment of crisis to do something that helped with equity.”

 

But it’s not just about money. It’s about power, too, said Julia Burgi, who worked both back and front of house roles in various restaurants in New York City.

 

“It exacerbates what could already be a really adversarial atmosphere based on the roles in place,” said Burgi. “Power imbalance is attributable somewhat to pay discrepancies…but it’s also attributable to the fundamentally different roles workers play in restaurants.” 

 

Solidarity and support between front and back of house are often crucial for a restaurant to operate most efficiently. But these relationship dynamics can be complicated when pay and power disparities arise, because it often implies a threat to their compensation. And since restaurant employees are some of the least unionized workers in the United States, underprivileged employees like back of house workers have to rely on their front of house counterparts to substitute official organizing. 

 

But due to long-standing tip culture, front of house tends to be more resistant to change, often creating an environment of competition. 

 

At Cuvillier’s former workplace, this created a harsh divide in tipping ideology. 

 

“Half were pro-tip pool, half were anti-tip pool,” said Cuvillier. “A lot of the anti-tip-pool people came from the bartenders who were used to bringing home over $35 an hour, and it’s really difficult to bring people together when they don’t feel like they’re in the same fight.”

 

Demographics also play a big role. Frequently, back of house employees in New York are people of color and don’t speak English well, or at all, Rigie said. 

 

During COVID, Sibley saw a surge in immigrant workers asking for work, and she’s seen a similar kind of rise since migrants started flooding New York City. But they’re not just asking for a job: they’re specifically asking to work off the books.

 

 “This tells me that yes, they’re undocumented, but also that they have no hope of getting documented,” she said. Sibley was born and raised in Mexico City, and she can sympathize.

 

In Cuvillier’s experiences, front of house workers are usually white, and generally female, while the back of house workers, seldom visible to the public, tend to be minorities and immigrants.

 

But for back of house workers, especially those working off the books, most don’t feasibly have the option of filing a labor complaint; if they did lodge a complaint, they could jeopardize their immigration status or work authorization.  

 

Amanda Cohen, head chef at the New York City vegan eatery Dirt Candy, banned tips in 2015, instead paying all staff $18+ an hour (now $25+ an hour) through a mandatory 20% administration fee on customers’ bills, effectively eliminating the issue of pay disparity between front and back of house. 

 

Eight years later, the restaurant is still going strong. 

 

One of the problems with the restaurant industry is that we call it an industry, but it’s not really,” Cohen told Fine Dining Lovers. “It’s hundreds of thousands of restaurants doing their own thing, and we are not united, we don’t have one guiding principle, or unity of purpose, except not to shut down and to serve good food.”

 

While support from front of house workers can have a considerable effect on organizing efforts, customer solidarity is also key.

 

“Stand with your restaurant workers. Service industry workers are the backbone of the tourism industry and hospitality industry, and people eat at restaurants all the time, every day…We pay, we get food, and we eat it. We don’t really think about the labor going into it and how they’re being compensated,” said Cuvillier. “So keep in mind the blood sweat and tears that are put into the food that you eat, the drinks that you drink, and appreciate it. Appreciate the hard work that we put into feeding our communities. And stand with us when we need help.

 

A plan for a chapter of Restaurant Workers United in New York, Cuvillier says, is currently in early planning stages.

 

Said Cuvillier: “We organize, or we die.”

About the author(s)

Julia Coccaro is a sociologist and currently a fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.