For a long, long time I’ve wanted to write about what a better country this might be if everyone had to spend two years in the service industry. My team at the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and DigBoston agreed, and so from this point forward this will be my space to do just that (OK, not just that, but you get the picture).
Now get comfy. Do you know what you would like to drink? Excellent, go get it yourself. Welcome to Terms of Service, a column about the service industry, by a bartender, for anyone who’s ever sat down for shifty—or wanted to know what that’s like. -HLH
ROC and a hard place
Sometime last month, a few weeks before the axe fell on common sense and people started mourning civil liberties, I attended an event hosted by the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) of Boston, the local branch of a national organization focused on improving working conditions and increasing earning potential for the 170,451 service industry employees in the Greater Boston area.
And I was fucking floored.
ROC was celebrating the publication of “Behind the Kitchen Door: Promise and Denial in Boston’s Growing Restaurant Industry,” a report drawing from 500 industry employee surveys, interviews with 21 employees and 20 managers or restaurant owners, and industry and government data. The goal: “to offer the most comprehensive analysis to date of working conditions in the Boston-area restaurant industry.” The report highlighted multiple pressing industry issues—wage theft, sexual harassment, and the need for living wages, for starters—yet it did so by surveying 0.3 percent of the industry population.
Which, my friends, reflects a problem, one that has bothered me for quite some time: People don’t understand how diverse and dynamic an industry that makes up 8.5 percent of the local economy is.
ROC does phenomenal work. For example, its report highlights that many women in the industry are sexually harassed on the job—by guests, coworkers, and management—and that in the most despicable of these cases a woman’s refusal to be physical or ignore comments or inappropriate behavior results in lost wages or unemployment. The report also notes that racial discrimination is alive and well in many parts of the restaurant world, and that back-of-the-house employees, those working in kitchens or as dishwashers or bussers, are often cheated out of overtime.
One of the key aims of the organization is to shift employees’ earnings to be tied directly to revenue, as a percentage of sales, and to eliminate the tipped-employee minimum (right now folks earning tips make $3.35 an hour while state minimum wage is an hourly $10) so that no one depends entirely on tips. On a grander scale, ROC organizers want the service industry to be seen and understood as a career, because it is. But according to its report and the problems highlighted therein, the entire industry needs a cultural overhaul—and, according to it, that has to come from the inside.
I understand that ROC wants to make the industry a better place to work for everyone, from the servers at IHOP to the city’s most prized sommeliers. Its approach, however, seems to suggest that the economic model of the industry is what breeds discrimination, harassment, and poverty. And I really don’t know what to do with that.
Because it’s true for some people, but as I stood in the back of that meeting listening to facts and figures about what awful conditions people are working in, personal accounts of sexism and discrimination from management, and how we must fight, together, to end the oppression of “restaurant workers” statewide, my head almost exploded. I then asked how many bartenders were included in the data pool.
Finally an answer: “Probably about 20 percent.” Which I was told represents the proportion of bartenders to other industry positions in the Boston-Metro area. In other words, they didn’t really think about people like me. That’s reasonable enough—if I was looking to right the wrongs of people working full-time and still living in poverty, craft bartenders wouldn’t be first on my list either. Nevertheless, that mindset perpetuates a significant stigma —that almost everyone is working at the bottom.
According to the report and the organization’s rhetoric, there is a very small (larger, I bet though, than the percentage of industry employees it polled) percentage of restaurant professionals making a decent living, and those are the celebrity-ranked chefs and bartenders, most of whom are men working in the the Hub’s fine dining establishments. By that logic, everybody else is struggling to make ends meet. Such language, this mentality—that you’re either a celebrity or a servant—is what makes Friday nights a living hell. It’s what makes people think they can talk down to the floor staff. And it’s what makes it such an exhausting endeavor to beat the idea—that working in hospitality is a respectable way to earn a living—into the public’s collective consciousness.
For a long time, the service industry was a catch-all for people ranging from folks who couldn’t hold down a job anywhere else to those who’d never finished high school or those who really liked to party. But it’s not like that anymore. There are many talented people in the Boston service industry who have chosen this line of work because we like it. We hustle hard, we study up, we practice, we create, and we usually do OK for ourselves financially.
And we are excellent at our jobs.
If we want respect for the industry to grow, it is critical for people to stop boiling everyone down to the same pair of clogs and an apron. Maybe that starts on the inside, with increased wages; or perhaps the process begins on the outside, with people paying attention to how much energy and skill goes into working the floor, the line, and behind the bar.
If we want to talk about wages, discrimination, and harassment, if we want to continue advocating for the creativity, skill, and professionalism this industry embodies, first we need to talk about how and why such a massive percentage of the general public views industry professionals as having failed to invest in their careers. I don’t think it’s because we work for tips —I think it’s because we’re frequently misrepresented.
No one deserves to be disrespected, be taken advantage of, or feel the need to lower their standards to make a living. We have to fix that cycle, and ROC has indeed spurred the conversation about how to make the industry a safer and more sustainable place for everyone who works in it. Likewise, we need to protect the people starting at the bottom or who may be waiting tables because it’s the only gig that they can get right now, but none of that is possible if we ignore those who don’t fit into a particular narrative.
Copyright 2016 Haley Hamilton.
Terms of Service is licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
Haley is an AAN Award-winning columnist for DigBoston and Mel magazine and has contributed to publications including the Boston Globe and helped found Homicide Watch Boston. She has spearheaded and led several Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism investigations including a landmark multipart series about the racialized history of liquor licensing in Massachusetts, and for three years wrote the column Terms of Service about restaurant industry issues from the perspective of workers.