Southeast Michigan Restaurant Industry Study Finds Shocking Pattern Of Discrimination

By Critical Moment Staff

Metro Detroit restaurants may not have “Colored People And Women Need Not Apply” signs in their windows, but there’s a de facto pattern of discrimination and favoritism in the industry here that’s crying out for change. On Oct. 22, the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) of Michigan released their 2014 report, “The Great Service Divide” documenting racial and gender disparities at fine dining establishments in Southeast Michigan.

Among ROC’s troubling findings:

* Workers of color with equal qualifications are granted living wage opportunities only 75 percent time compared to white workers.

* Sixty-three percent of workers of color who work as bartenders and servers earn below twice the poverty rate, compared to 44 percent of white workers. This results in 33 percent lower earnings than their white counterparts.

* Fifty-two percent of Black workers and 46 percent of Latino workers are unemployed, compared to 18 percent of white workers, among bartenders and servers currently on the job market.

The study used matched pair testing, meaning pairs of white testers and testers of color with equal credentials, at 88 local restaurants along with demographic canvassing of 48 establishments to reach their conclusions. ROC’s backed up this analysis with census data, surveys and focus group interviews with workers and employers.

Casual observation through canvassing found that white workers monopolized the majority of management and non management front-of-the house positions. Matched pair testing determined testers of color were only 75 percent as likely as their white counterparts to get a job offer and had a lesser chance of getting an interview.

ROC also noted that workers of color and women in lower-level positions often could not get promoted to living-wage jobs, despite having qualifications, experience and seniority.

Building on these findings, the report concluded that the local restaurant industry is built on a culture of favoritism that lacks the infrastructure to guide hiring training and promotion to challenge this pattern of discrimination. What’s more this atmosphere results in a work environment that is hostile to women and workers of color and often expresses itself in top-down sexual harassment.

Restaurant worker Aisha Thurman participated in a panel organized by ROC to discuss the study held at COLORS restaurant in downtown Detroit. (You can watch video of the event recorded by Shane Bernardo here).

“It doesn’t surprise me,” she told Critical Moment, speaking of the report. “I know these people first-hand. My main thing is Black women, mothers, we should expect change. Customers are one thing, but we should expect to be treated with respect by our employers.”

To rectify this situation, ROC-United, the group’s national organization, recommends employers create career ladders to offer opportunities for people of color and women in the industry to move into the best paying positions. Its advice to policymakers is to get rid of the sub-minimum wage for service industry workers and enact a fair minimum wage while pushing for other legislative measures that help deal with these inequalities.

Graham Kovich, another restaurant worker who spoke on the panel, suggested worker-run cooperatives as a way to address these issues through democratic accountability at the workplace. Dr. Alicia Renee Farris, ROC-Michigan’s state director told Critical Moment restaurant patrons also need to be part of the solution.

“We cannot wait to do this,” she said. “The way to change this is for each person, when they go into a restaurant, to observe who’s in these positions and even inquire [of workers]: ‘Are you being treated right?'”

Learn more about ROC of Michigan online on their website or facebook.