Food Service Work: What About Equal Pay And Health Care?

Dec 6, 2013

Yesterday, fast food restaurant workers and their supporters went on strike around the country, including here in Rhode Island. Their demand: $15 an hour instead of the minimum wage (which will be $8 in January here in RI).

A spokesman for the Restaurant Association of America told me that basically doubling wages would hurt the industry (no surprise there) and cost jobs. He said that the majority of fast food workers are entry level, in it for the first-job experience, and not likely to stick around for long. His argument: these are low-skilled jobs for young people first entering the workforce who will likely go on to better paying jobs very soon, and don't forget the industry is, bottom line, providing jobs to people who might not otherwise find them. Fair enough.

But, I wondered, is that really the case?

(And besides, how do people earning $8 an hour afford health care? To answer the second question, some of them may qualify for federal subsidies when they buy an insurance plan on HealthSource RI, or they may even qualify for Medicaid (the state-funded health insurance program). But if you're an hourly worker like they are,you're most likely not covered by an employer-sponsored health plan. And you may not have much paid leave time if you're sick, pregnant, or have to take sick kid or parent to the doctor.)

So I decided to dig into some of the data on food service work in Rhode Island (via the U.S. Census Bureau's Local Employment Dynamics statistics) and what I found surprised me.

First, the data show that the largest percentage of food service workers here are 25 - 34. Next, there's not as much turnover as you might think. And then there's the trend in overall earnings: while wages in most other industries have gone steadily up over the past few years, they've stayed pretty flat for food service workers.

But here's the most surprising fact: the average monthly wage for a new food service employee is much higher for men than for women. Men earn on average about $1800 a month in food service in Rhode Island. Women? $1200. We know equal pay is still not a reality for many women in the U.S., but that struck me as a huge disparity.

Researchers know there's a link between low wages and women's reproductive health. Women who are lower on the socioeconomic totem pole get less prenatal care and have more unintended pregnancies.  Closing the gender pay gap might not immediately change those facts, but it might be a step towards encouraging employers to offer other workplace protections to women and other caregivers.

The industry spokesman, Scott DeFife, also said he thought the more important goal should be to raise education and skill levels, that lacking those is what keeps people stuck in low wage jobs. Sounds good. But in the meantime, are working people making enough to take care of themselves and their families (food, health care, etc.) and enroll in community college or technical classes?