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How worker-friendly laws changed life as a server in San Francisco restaurants

Managers are more picky about whom they hire, because they want workers to be worth the cost.

In this photo taken Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, a waiter pours a couple sparkling wine before sunset at the View lounge in San Francisco, where working in a restaurant can be a stable career. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
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A few years ago, while Bill Lester was a graduate student and working at a French restaurant in Chicago, he found himself complaining to a fellow server about the scut work they had to do as part of the job like folding napkins when the owner overheard, and chastised him.

“She said, ‘You have it so easy, because in France, the waiters wash windows, do everything,’” Lester recalls. “They’re professionals. There’s the expectation that ‘I’m working for this firm, and I do anything that’s needed to be done.'”

The contrast was striking to Lester: Unlike in France, U.S. restaurants can pay their waiters as little as the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 an hour in many states, so they’re essentially working for their customers on commission, rather than the employer. That explained his reluctance to do anything that didn’t directly interface with the person who’d be leaving him a tip.

The experience stuck with Lester. Now an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, he started thinking about the impact of higher minimum wages and other worker-friendly mandates in American cities on the structure of low-wage jobs. And this month, he published one of the first qualitative studies on a new wave of employment legislation, focusing on what’s happened in the industry where he used to work: Restaurants.

It’s an important inquiry. Over the past few years, as liberal priorities have been stymied on the state and federal level, a number of cities have emerged as islands with worker-friendly policies like higher minimum wages and mandatory paid sick leave. More are likely to emerge in the years ahead, with campaigns gaining steam around the country, and both proponents and opponents will be looking around to see what happened in the places that took the lead. 

They might look first to San Francisco, which has served as a proving ground for many of these policies the minimum wage there is now $12.25, and all employers are required to offer paid sick days and contribute to their employees’ health insurance. That’s where Lester decided to focus his study, in comparison with a place nearby his current home in North Carolina  the Research Triangle Park region, including Raleigh-Durham and Chapel Hill  which is of comparable size and has a similar customer base of high-earning, tech-savvy restaurant-goers, but has no locally-enacted employment mandates to speak of.

Quantitatively, it's still probably too early to tell precisely what impact the new generation of higher minimum wages has had on employment overall. Instead, Lester took a more anthropological approach. What he found, through a series of interviews and surveys of full-service restaurant managers in both cities, was highly relevant to the French restaurant owner’s comment in Chicago: The restaurant scene in San Francisco turned out to be much more professionalized than the one in North Carolina. Managers spend more time looking for skilled workers with the names of reputable establishments on their resumes, and then keep them as long as they can, sometimes by offering non-monetary perks like access to the restaurant's wholesale purchasing account for culinary side projects.

In Research Triangle Park, by contrast, fully 46 percent of servers are hired with no experience at all compared to eight percent in San Francisco and treated as replaceable. Servers are more commonly part-time college students, and turnover in Research Triangle Park is 31.1 percent annually compared to 15.9 percent in San Francisco. “We don't look for the skill,” said one upscale bar and grill manager in Raleigh. “I can teach anybody how to cook steaks. What I can't teach is how to be a good person.”

Of course, there is some virtue in maintaining access for people who don’t already have prior experience especially if employers are then willing to train new hires, as Lester found was more common in Research Triangle Park than San Francisco. But he says it’s still possible to work your way up the ladder in San Francisco, by starting in limited-service restaurants to gain proficiency. And the higher standards in San Francisco mean that ladder can lead to a stable, long-term profession, which essentially doesn’t exist in North Carolina.

“Restaurant jobs are defined and structured as stepping stone jobs, essentially throwaway jobs,” Lester says. “The problem is, since we don’t have middle class jobs to step into, that becomes a policy problem in itself.”

Still, the people who actually work in San Francisco’s booming restaurant industry say things are hardly perfect. Housing costs are so high in the city and surrounding area that even the higher wages aren’t enough to live on unless you spend hours commuting. And laws are only as good as the government’s ability to enforce them.

“Even though you have a higher minimum wage, you can still have abusive practices,” says Evelyn Rangel-Medina, director of the non-profit Restaurant Opportunities Center of the Bay Area. Every day, she hears from workers who claim to have been treated unfairly. “Certain employers find ways to circumvent the law by shaving off hours, or having them come in early to do prep work.”

In addition, the higher minimum wage has exacerbated the divide between tipped front-of-the-house workers and those who toil in the kitchen, which can also break down along racial and ethnic lines. For that reason, the Restaurant Opportunities Center — whose work Lester cites in his paper — is working with a number of restaurants to cross-train their employees, so that Hispanic people have a chance to work the higher-earning server jobs as well.

But overall, to Lester, San Francisco’s higher standards have turned a field that in other places is thought of as low-prestige and low-skill, for people who need part-time work or a bridge between “real” careers, into something entirely different.

"You take an industry that by and large is so available, the process is so familiar, it’s not radically different,” Lester says, of the restaurant business across cities and countries. “But the labor process and the jobs, and the way we talk about these jobs is very different. The way we define jobs in a normative sense can change.”