Saru Jayaraman and Mark Bittman

Credit: University of California

UC Berkeley's Saru Jayaraman discusses food labor issues with Mark Bittman.

One in 12 working Americans are employed in the food industry — many of them living at the poverty line, says UC Berkeley’s Saru Jayaraman, director of both the Food Labor Research Center and Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a national advocacy organization. 

In "Forked: A New Standard for American Dining," just out, Jayaraman — a leading expert on what it’s like to work in the restaurant industry — offers 14 case studies and ranks working conditions at eateries ranging from greasy-spoon diners to national chains and white-tablecloth venues.

On the low end, “workers get a wage as low as $2.13 an hour (the federal minimum for employees who earn tips), unpaid sick days, no opportunity for mobility and may experience sexual harassment from customers. But restaurants can be both profitable and good places to work,” she insists. 

Read a Q&A with Jayaraman on the NPR science blog “The Salt.”

Jayaraman also is an editor of a new report, Working Below the Line, which claims the U.S. is violating international human rights standards in its treatment of tipped restaurant workers, most of whom live in abject poverty.

The report is a co-production of Berkeley Law’s International Human Rights Law Clinic, the UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.

At a packed law school event last week, the report’s co-authors cited numerous U.S. breaches of international agreements designed to protect workers’ access to a living wage, along with basic needs such as food, health care and housing. The U.S. is a signatory to most of these accords, but has not ratified all of them, which means they’re not legally binding.

Jayaraman is now pushing a “One Fair Wage” campaign in statehouses across the country, asking lawmakers to require restaurants to pay all employees at least the regular minimum wage. And the drumbeat is growing louder. Twenty-nine states and Washington, D.C., have hiked their minimum wages above the federal minimum, up to $10 per hour. Several cities have gone even further, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, which are gradually phasing in a $15 minimum wage.