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Diners' Guide Rates Working Conditions Inside Restaurants

Move over Zagat and Yelp. There's a new diners' guide in town, designed to help consumers choose restaurants based on what's happening behind the kitchen door. But this isn't about what's on the plate; it's a rare survey of the working conditions and employment practices of restaurants.

The guide, compiled by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, a food service workers advocacy group, evaluates the 150 highest-grossing restaurants in the United States, plus others that have been working with ROC United to do better by their employees.

"We have extraordinary power with our forks," says Saru Jayaraman, the co-founder of ROC United. "This is the first time we're asking you the consumer to work with us."

The guide gave high scores to several individually-owned or regional chains, like the Colors restaurants in Detroit and New York City. Meanwhile, big chains like McDonald's, Starbucks and T.G.I. Friday's earned straight zeros.

The guide grades each restaurant in five categories: availability of paid sick days, opportunities for advancement within the company, whether or not the restaurant followed ROC's "high road" of sustainable practices, wages for tipped workers, and wages for non-tipped workers.

Minimum wage for tipped employees has been frozen at $2.13 per hour since 1996. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that waitstaff have a median income of $8.03 per hour, including tips. Their non-tipped counterparts don't do much better, with hosts and hostesses averaging around $8.42 per hour. If those workers are trying to support a family of three, they'd need to earn at least $8.80 to get above the federal poverty line.

"We have members around the country that are homeless," Jayaraman says.

In terms of wages, ROC United praises companies that pay at least $5 an hour to tipped employees and $9 per hour to non-tipped employees, which are the minimums that the organization considers a livable income.

The guide doesn't necessarily offer straightforward answers, even among restaurants that meet some of ROC United's criteria. Is it better to buy lunch at In-N-Out Burger, where employees receive paid sick leave and make at least $9 an hour, or Hardee's, where over 50 percent of employees have moved up the company ranks since they were first hired?

Andy Shallal, a Washington, D.C. restaurateur whose establishments received high scores in the guide, says that while consumers are increasingly concerned about where their food comes from, they're not focusing on the people who serve their food or wash their dinner plates. "It should've happened the other way around," Shallal says. "I think it's time for cage-free employees."

Washington, D.C. is among the growing number of places mandating restaurant workers get paid sick leave. But Shallal says the law has a number of loopholes making its enforcement difficult, including an exception of any hosts or servers working in the front of the restaurant rather than in the kitchen.

As Radiolab recently pointed out, Typhoid Mary wouldn't have been such a public menace if she hadn't also been a cook.

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