Millions of restaurant workers have been forced without their knowledge to subsidize an organization that exists in part to keep their pay low, The New York Times reports. (Every now and then the Times does really excellent work. Just never with political reporting.) On the surface, it seems that the workers are taking a kind of insultingly basic food safety course. But the company that dominates the market for such courses is owned by the National Restaurant Association (NRA), the industry group that has successfully kept the minimum wage for tipped workers set at $2.13 an hour since 1991.
The company in question is ServSafe, of which a competitor told the Times, “We believe they’ve got at least 70 percent-plus of the market. Maybe higher.” The NRA (the restaurant one) took over ServSafe in 2007, then lobbied several large states to make such trainings mandatory not just for restaurant managers but for all restaurant workers, creating a huge built-in market. So far, “More than 3.6 million workers have taken this training, providing about $25 million in revenue to the restaurant industry’s lobbying arm since 2010.” That’s more than enough to cover all of the NRA’s lobbying in that time. And the lobbying in question has included a lot of efforts to keep the minimum wage low.
The timing wasn’t coincidental on the acquisition of ServSafe: It happened soon after Congress raised the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour (where it remains stuck, thanks to industry lobby groups like the NRA), leaving the organization looking for ways to raise revenue without raising dues.
“That’s when the decision was contemplated, of buying the ServSafe program,” a former chair of the NRA’s board told the Times. “Because it was profitable.”
Here’s some more context for how much money the restaurant lobby is extracting from workers to do work against their interests:
Consider that the next time you hear someone claiming that union dues—which are used to represent workers directly at their jobs and in policy advocacy—are too costly.
“I’m sitting up here working hard, paying this money so that I can work this job, so I can provide for my family,” Mysheka Ronquillo, a line cook at a fast food restaurant and a private school cafeteria in California, told the Times. “And I’m giving y’all money so y’all can go against me?” Ronquillo has been required to take a food safety course every three years, with ServSafe being the standard option available.
The states that passed a requirement for all restaurant workers, not just managers, to take the food safety course (sample information offered by the Times: “strawberries aren’t supposed to be white and fuzzy, that’s mold”) did so in the name of reducing food-borne illness. But—completely unsurprisingly—the NRA, which lobbied for those laws, has also worked hard to squash paid sick leave legislation. They don’t care about keeping customers healthy when it’s a question of making cooks and waiters go to work sick.
There are alternatives to using ServSafe, although they’re from much smaller companies. And, Restaurant Opportunities Centers head Saru Jayaraman told the Times, “We’ll be telling [workers] to use any possible alternatives.” That may make only a small dent in the profits flowing to the NRA to support its efforts making the lives of restaurant workers worse, but it’s a start in giving ServSafe more meaningful competition.
The whole report on the (other) NRA and ServSafe is also an important reminder to diners and consumers of news alike on how to assess information that comes from the restaurant lobby group.
Election season is already here, and it's already off to an amazing start with Democrats' huge flip of a critical seat in the Virginia state Senate, which kicks off this episode of The Downballot. Co-hosts David Nir and David Beard dissect what Aaron Rouse's victory means for November (abortion is still issue #1!) when every seat in the legislature will be on the ballot. They also discuss big goings-on in two U.S. Senate races: California, where Rep. Katie Porter just became the first Democrat to kick off a bid despite Sen. Dianne Feinstein's lack of a decision about her own future, and Michigan, which just saw veteran Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow announce her retirement.