Photo by moyrj on Flickr.

Dining out in the DC area is an occasional practice for many and an everyday indulgence for some. The restaurant industry is an ever-changing and fast growing industry not only across the nation, but here in DC. Unfortunately it is also an industry plagued with many bad jobs and only a few good ones. 

There are almost 2,000 eating and drinking establishments in Washington DC alone and over 10,000 in Maryland and over 13,000 in Virginia.

Restaurants and other eating/drinking establishments are also a driving force for the local economy. It is estimated that in 2010, the industry will generate at least 2.4 billion in sales in DC, $8.7 billion in sales in Maryland, and over $11 billion in Virginia. The industry employees over 36,000 people in DC, 226,900 in Maryland and almost 331,000 people in Virginia.

However, the restaurant industry is plagued by low wages, poor working conditions, and inadequate benefits.  The average annual salary for restaurant employees in 2009 was $22,982 in DC, $20,522 in Arlington County, and $18,949 in Montgomery County. These salaries are just below the poverty line for a family of four.

A major issue confronting restaurant workers revolves around benefits, especially those relating to employee health.  Unlike many workers in the United States, restaurant workers often do not receive paid sick leave. 

Because restaurant wages are often so low, the decision for a worker that she is too sick to work on a particular day could mean being unable to pay bills or care for her family. Restaurant workers who lack paid sick leave contribute to public health problem since they sometimes come to work sick

In 2008 Washington, D.C. passed the Accrued Sick and Safe Leave Act, which requires employers to provide paid sick leave for workers. However, in the give-and-take negotiations to secure that law, restaurant owners won major concessions, including provisions that exempt tipped waitstaff and bartenders from coverage under the law.

Even for restaurant workers who do fall under the bill’s provisions, many remain unaware of the new regulations.  The DC government has taken the first steps of creating necessary regulations and adding the violation of paid sick leave provisions to forms workers can use to register official complaints against their employers, but education for workers about their new rights, which is critically important, has been slow.

The Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) is working to establish baseline standards for restaurant-industry workers, reward restaurants and their owners when they pay and treat their workers well, and call out those who violate workers’ legal rights.

As restaurant goers, there are a couple simple things we can do to help support restaurant workers. First, leave your tip in cash. Since credit card tips must be processed, it can take longer for waiters to actually receive their wages, while some never receive their credit card tips at all.  Restaurant employees and advocates are working to change tip processing, but for the time being the best way to ensure that your tips reach workers is to leave cash.

Second, dine out ethically. Support workers by eating at restaurants with fair labor practices. On Saturday, November 13th, ROC is encouraging consumers to dine at, or “Carrotmob,” Teaism because of their support of workers rights. Teaism currently provides 5-7 sick days to all of their workers.

The restaurant industry provides and will continue to provide an important contribution to the region’s economy. The industry is projected to grow by 12 percent in DC, and around 8 percent in both Maryland and Virginia by 2020.

The DC area restaurant industry can either take the high road by providing fair wages, access to health benefits, and advancement in the industry. Or, take the low road by continuing to create low-wage jobs with few benefits and poor working conditions.

As consumers we can encourage the industry and policy makers to support workers, thus not only benefiting restaurant employees but also the overall quality of the food we eat.

Lynda Laughlin is a family demographer at the U.S. Census Bureau. She holds a PhD in sociology and enjoys reading, writing, and researching issues related to families and communities, urban economics, and urban development. Lynda lives in Mt. Pleasant. Views expressed here are strictly her own.