So much of the focus on women in the restaurant industry these days is on getting through the door and into a job, management position, or ownership stake. That is no doubt a struggle, even today. But the many other challenges women in the restaurant industry continue to face on a daily basis can easily be overlooked.
After all, you made it, girl.
But are you really making it?
Signs point to a much more difficult path for women who take on roles and responsibilities in restaurants compared to their male counterparts. Idiosyncrasies of individual workplaces aside, almost all women will face institutional challenges that cross all environments — hurdles that transcend the restaurant industry and are built into the structure of small business in America in 2017.
Three such challenges stand out among many — base salary, parental leave (paid or unpaid), and health care. Let’s break each one down.
In a recent report entitled, “Racial and Gender Occupational Segregation in the Restaurant Industry” conducted by Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United), results showed a large gap in pay not just between men and women in California, but also between white restaurant industry employees and persons of color in similar roles.
ROC United concluded average wages across all roles to be:
- White men: $14.18/hour
- Men of color (including Black, Latino, Asian, and Arab): $11.63/hour
- White women: $11.30/hour
- Women of color: $10.13/hour
And while it is true that front of house workers (servers, hosts, managers) — male or female — tend to make higher wages than back of house workers (chefs, cooks, dishwashers), there is only, on average, a 30 cent gap per hour between the two areas for women, while the same move from back to front nets a man, on average, at least a $2.00 increase.
This gap is surprising given that the number of women in front of house positions is nearly twice that of women in back of house positions. Front of house positions are generally considered more prestigious because they require constant interaction with guests. The front of house staff is literally the face of the business. Yet, women in these roles yield merely thirty cents more per hour than their back of house counterparts.
We can speculate about the causes (actual or perceived) of the wage gap between men and women. However, evidence suggests that the roles and opportunities achieved by women in the restaurant workplace simply do not pay as well as those maintained by men without similar household responsibilities.
So what’s specifically holding women back? Two-thirds of women now occupy the position of breadwinner in their households — either sharing the responsibility with a spouse or partner or shouldering it alone as a single parent — making additional training, extra shifts, and the ability to accept upward mobility more difficult. Managerial or senior-level jobs that pay higher wages may be out of reach for women who are unable to prioritize work over home in every instance.
Women often function as the primary caregiver in their families, either to children or elderly parents, which could require women to be withdraw from the work force for variable periods of time. When women withdraw from the work force, it creates opportunities for men to advance and achieve higher wages.
But the effect of parental leave on the female employee isn’t just about salary and upward mobility. The reality is, protections for women taking leave during pregnancy through the Federal Medical Leave Act (FMLA) don’t apply to every worker — and likely apply to fewer restaurant employees than you might think.
In most cases, the FLMA provides for twelve workweeks of leave in a 12-month period for eligible employees. The key protection FMLA provides workers is the guarantee of reinstatement to a previous (or a similar) position and pay scale upon returning to work after the applicable leave of absence. FMLA does not require the employer to pay any salary or the employee’s portion of group health insurance premiums during the leave period.
FMLA can be used in the event of pregnancy or child birth, but also in the event of:
- Care for self, spouse, child, or parent with a serious health condition
- Placement of a child for adoption or foster care
- Military Family Leave
FMLA does not differentiate between women and men in regard to who can take leave under these circumstances, only that eligible employees must have been with the company for 12 months prior to the leave and worked a minimum of 1,250 hours in the past 12 months.
Unfortunately, one of the limitations of the law as it stands is that it only applies to businesses that employ at least 50 employees within a 75-mile area. Work for a small franchise? FMLA will likely apply. If you work for Starbucks or McDonald’s, you can safely assume the benefit is available to you.
But 90% of restaurants do not employ that many people. Therefore, any family leave granted would be strictly voluntary on their part. That leaves a lot of women in the restaurant industry on shaky ground should they choose (or find themselves in the position) to raise a family or take care of an elderly or sick parent.
Federal courts take cases regarding FMLA violations very seriously. Restaurants may face serious repercussions for failing to comply with FMLA requirements. It’s important to follow the law carefully, both for your bottom line and ultimately for the protection and relief of your dedicated employees.
That said, there are restaurants that enthusiastically embrace the concept of family leave as a way of respecting work/life balance — and a tool for quality employee retention — offering FMLA leave in conjunction with paid time off for employees who choose to take it.
Starting January 1, 2017, full-time employees at Danny Meyers’ Union Square Hospitality Group are able to take four weeks maternity/paternity leave with full pay. Other notable restaurant chains that offer paid leave include: David Chang’s restaurant group, Momofuku, provides four weeks paid leave, plus vacation time; Hank’s Oyster Bar offers two weeks paid leave; and Laughing Planet Cafe, a chain of burrito joints on the West Coast, provides a full twelve weeks of paid leave.
While not the standard for the restaurant industry — or many other American industries — these benefits underscore (in policy form) a desire to provide equal treatment and opportunity for male and female employees.
At the time of this writing, so much is still unknown about the future of health care in America for all employed and non-employed citizens, much less the restaurant industry specifically.
The Affordable Care Act currently provides female insurance holders with the following guaranteed coverage through its programs:
- maternity care
- prescription drugs, including contraceptives
- free preventive services such as well-woman exams
- mental health care services
- family planning
- STI screenings
Pre-existing conditions (including cancer, pregnancy, endometriosis, and heart disease, among others) no longer preclude anyone from acquiring health insurance, a benefit of the ACA that applies to insured individuals who buy through the public exchange and those who receive insurance through an employer.
For its part, the National Restaurant Association recognized the financial burden the ACA placed on small business owners, and developed programs to help restaurants deal with notification, tracking and communication to employees about enrollment in employer-sponsored offerings, federal or state exchanges, or whether to seek a health care plan from a private exchange.
Despite coverage, women in the industry tend to work through illness at astonishing (and frightening) rates; in fact, 70 percent of women in the quick service segment have reported gong to work coughing or sneezing, with a fever or diarrhea, or vomiting in the past year. Why? Because only 14 percent of women working in the industry as a whole have access to paid sick leave. The economic incentive to go to work sick is larger than the communal danger it represents in a food service environment.
What’s unknown at this point is whether the ACA will be rescinded by Congress and replaced with anything comparable for health care coverage. There are also a number of bills in their early stages, that if enacted into law, may prevent some women from receiving the treatment necessary for true contraceptive health, whether or not their coverage is employer-based or on the public option.
As news about these legislative shake-ups and executive orders come fast and furious every day, we may even have a clearer picture by the time of publication. But suffice to say, health care in the restaurant environment — in any small business scenario — is a financial challenge that will continue to plague owners and employees alike.
Want to explore some of the ways women are dealing with challenges in the restaurant industry — by moving up the chain and into ownership positions?
Rewards Network® does not provide tax, legal, or accounting advice. This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, tax, legal or accounting advice. You should consult your own tax, legal and accounting advisors before engaging in any transaction.