Piaget Ventus had been working in the New York restaurant industry for several years when her manager informed the staff one day, circa 2015, that they all needed to take a ServSafe course. The employees met at a sister restaurant, where they watched safety videos, took practice tests and had to pass a final exam to get certified. The course cost Ventus $15, for which she was reimbursed, but it consumed about three hours of her day, which she was expected to surrender without pay.
As a server, Ventus rarely had to handle food directly. There were runners for that. Nonetheless, she took the course at face value. She figured her managers just wanted to make sure everyone had a firm grasp of food safety basics. But after the New York Times reported this month that the ServSafe program also raises money for the National Restaurant Association, Ventus felt something akin to betrayal. The NRA — occasionally called “the other NRA” — is a multimillion-dollar trade association that lobbies for the restaurant industry, sometimes at the expense of workers when it comes to the tip credit, sick leave and raising the federal minimum wage.
“I wasn’t too upset about doing” the course at the time, Ventus told The Washington Post. “But now, knowing that it was done more so under the guise to keep minimum wage down, using our time and our money, it kind of feels like I’ve been duped.”
Ventus is one of two plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit, filed last week in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York, against the NRA and its ServSafe program. In the complaint, Ventus and Sean Gallagher claim that the National Restaurant Association offered a training program with “little to no value,” only to raise cash to funnel into the group’s lobbying efforts. “Plaintiffs are in effect being forced to fund lobbying efforts against their own interests unknowingly and in violation of generally accepted business practices and other laws,” the complaint alleges.
In a statement to The Post, the NRA said the case lacks merit and the group expects to be vindicated in court.
The lawsuit “is one part of a larger strategy driven by competitors and people with special interests to undermine ServSafe’s vital mission of keeping millions of Americans safe from food borne illnesses,” the statement read.
ServSafe is a training platform with multiple offerings, including ones designed for managers, food handlers, bartenders and more. The programs generate millions of dollars a year for the NRA, representing one of the association’s major revenue streams that it then funnels into advocacy work.
In a January 2014 letter, then-president Dawn Sweeney wrote to members: “The NRA is different from most traditional trade associations in our business model. Only three percent of our funding comes from dues and as a result, our business initiatives, primarily ServSafe and the NRA Show, fuel our revenue model and feed our mission and vision of our organization.”
A handful of states, including California and Texas, require workers who handle food to take a safety course, and worker advocates say ServSafe dominates this market even if there are other options. Many workers think ServSafe is a government program, says Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage, a group that lobbies against the sub-minimum wage for restaurant employees.
New York City, where Ventus used to work before moving to Los Angeles, has its own rules: The law requires that food service establishments have at least one supervisor trained in food safety, and that course is available only through the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The online course is free, but to receive a certificate, managers must pass a final test that costs $24. Their certificate never expires. But some employers, like Ventus’s former one in New York, regularly ask workers to take ServSafe food handler training even if it’s not required by law, worker advocates say.
A ServSafe food handler course costs $15 and must be renewed every three years. The National Restaurant Association doesn’t make ServSafe financial information public, aside from a brief mention in the group’s Form 990, which it files annually with the Internal Revenue Service. In its filing from 2021, the NRA said it tested nearly 667,000 food service managers in ServSafe programs but made no mention of the number of hourly workers, such as Ventus and Gallagher, who took the basic food safety course.
The NRA estimates that only 2 percent of the group’s revenue from 2010 to 2019 came from workers who paid for the ServSafe food handler training themselves. Over that period, the trade group reported revenue of more than $1 billion, according to Form 990 filings. Two percent would translate into more than $21 million from workers who had covered their own costs for the ServSafe food handler course.
Jayaraman from One Fair Wage doesn’t trust the NRA’s accounting. “I have never spoken to a worker whose employer paid for it. Never,” Jayaraman told The Post. “Workers pay for this.”
However much is covered by hourly workers, the ServSafe money has helped the NRA advocate for members. During the pandemic, the NRA lobbied Congress for targeted relief for restaurants, helping the hard-hit industry keep businesses open and jobs available for those who were willing to work while the coronavirus made indoor employment risky. But the organization has also lobbied against not only minimum-wage increases but also a recent Labor Department proposed rule that would reclassify countless contract workers as full-time employees, giving them benefits and protections not currently granted to many laborers in the gig economy.
“We have found where dishwashers were classified as independent contractors so they would not have to be paid overtime,” Jessica Looman, principal deputy administrator of the department’s Wage and Hour Division, told reporters during a news conference announcing the proposed rule.
What’s more, advocacy groups such as the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) and One Fair Wage say ServSafe money has been funneled, at least in part, to worker organizations that lobby against hot-button issues such as voter initiatives to eliminate the tip credit.
The credit allows restaurants to pay servers, bartenders and other tipped employees as little as $2.13 an hour as long as their wages and tips combine to equal the minimum wage in their jurisdiction. The NRA and state restaurant associations have long argued that ending the tip credit would have a chilling effect on the industry, cutting into earnings, raising prices for diners and reducing the take-home pay of workers who rely on tips.
Over the past five years or so, groups such as the Restaurant Workers of America, the Save Our Tips coalition and Restaurant Industry United have picked up on this messaging and taken to it to the streets and storefronts in Michigan; Portland, Maine; and the nation’s capital, where they have told voters that hourly workers want to maintain the tip credit.
Media outlets, including The Post, have given over column inches and taken quotes from workers connected to what critics call “astroturf” groups, or fake grass-roots organizations, that appear to represent the interests of restaurant owners and industry. These groups have been credited, in part, with overturning a ballot initiative to eliminate the tip credit in D.C. and persuading voters to reject a similar initiative in Portland, Maine. (Last year, District residents again voted to end the tipped minimum wage, and the D.C. Council has indicated it won’t repeal the initiative this time.)
In a 2018 analysis of media coverage of the Restaurant Workers of America, Columbia Journalism Review rebuked reporters for not identifying members of the worker organization as part of “a restaurant-owner funded group.” The analysis noted that “it’s not clear that the group has any broad support from tipped workers, besides the obvious spokespeople.”
But in the past, reporters have made connections between so-called grass-roots organizations and restaurant associations, whether local or national. What few noted, however, is that servers and bartenders, through their ServSafe purchases, have indirectly contributed to these lobbying campaigns to keep the tip credit, a system that worker advocates say hurts hourly servers, contributes to increased poverty among tipped employees, and fosters an environment in which wait staff must tolerate abusive and/or sexist behavior.
In the cities and states that have abolished the tipped minimum wage, “the results are that poverty has come down, pay has gone up, and employment remains stable,” noted a pair of authors connected to a left-leaning think tank.
The NRA told The Post that the association is not involved in large, coordinated astroturf activities, though its Form 990 filings suggest something different.
In 2017, the same year restaurant workers in Maine successfully lobbied the legislature to overturn a referendum and restore the tip credit, the NRA gave $20,000 to a nonprofit organization called the Employment Policies Institute Foundation, often shortened to Employment Policies Institute. EPI’s president, according to IRS filings, is lawyer Richard Berman, and the foundation is managed by Berman and Co., a Washington-based public affairs firm. The progressive watchdog group SourceWatch alleges that Berman and Co. operates “front groups, attack-dog websites, and alleged think tanks that work to counteract minimum wage campaigns, keep wages low for restaurant workers.” Mother Jones once called Berman a “notorious astroturf pioneer.”
According to its 990 forms, EPI is doing business as “the tips coalition” and has set up such websites as ourindustryourvoice.com, which offers worker testimonials about the benefits of America’s tipping culture.
“It’s a different voice than coming from ownership or a lobbyist. It’s the people who are actually on the ground doing the job, day in and day out,” Joshua Chaisson, a veteran server, says in a video on ourindustryourvoice.com. Like others featured on the website, Chaisson is listed as a board member of the Restaurant Workers of America. Chaisson did not respond to multiple emails from The Post.
In 2018, when Washington residents were deciding whether to eliminate the tipped minimum wage, the NRA increased its contribution to EPI to $50,000, according to the association’s 990 filing. In 2019, the NRA sent $60,000 to Berman’s group. From 2017 to 2021, the National Restaurant Association contributed a total of $140,000 to EPI, according to 990 filings.
“We’re happy to accept support from anyone who agrees with our mission to protect tipped workers and tipped income against attacks from the fake advocates at ROC and One Fair Wage,” Michael Saltsman, EPI’s managing director, wrote in an email. “The track record of these two groups has been one of repeated failure, because workers don’t want the anti-tipping scheme that they’re selling.”
The NRA has contributed to other groups that purport to speak for restaurant workers. In its 2022 campaign finance report, Restaurant Industry United noted that it had received $50,000 from the NRA to fund its campaign against a ballot initiative that would have ended the tip credit in Portland. In 2018, the national association sent $35,000 to a group named the Protecting Restaurant Workers Committee as well as $10,000 to the Save Our Tip System Initiative 77, both of which shared the same D.C. address: 1625 K St. NW, Suite 210. At the time, that was the address for the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, an affiliate of the NRA.
When presented with evidence of its support of alleged astroturf groups, the NRA sent The Post a statement: “The Association supports the many tipped employees who are choosing to fight legislation that would eliminate their earning potential. We do that through contributions to campaigns and coalition building that can amplify their voice. There’s a reason people choose tipped restaurant jobs — they know the economics are in their favor,” it read.
Teófilo Reyes, chief program officer for ROC United, says astroturf groups have adopted union-busting tactics that sometimes intimidate workers into supporting the industry’s interests over their own. The groups, he said, hold captive-audience meetings at restaurants, with owners or managers present, and tell the workers that eliminating the tip credit will lower their wages or kill their jobs.
“For years we have tracked how these deceptive organizations scare and misinform workers, and it’s a disgrace how the NRA uses workers’ hard earned money to hijack workers’ voices, suppress democracy, and widen economic inequality,” Reyes said in a statement to The Post.
To try to staunch the flow of ServSafe money to the NRA, One Fair Wage recently launched its own food safety course. The organization is working with the American National Standards Institute to get the course accredited, Jayaraman said. The process, she expected, will take between three and six months. The training will then start immediately.