By Saru Jayaraman and Fekkak Mamdouh*
With 10 million workers, the restaurant industry is one of the nation’s largest and fastest growing employers – and one of the largest employers of women of color - even during the current economic crisis. Founded initially after 9/11 to support restaurant workers displaced from the World Trade Center, the Restaurant Opportunities Center  (ROC) has grown into a national restaurant workers’ organization with 6000 members in seven states. ROC supports restaurant workers through organizing, policy and research work, and partnerships with responsible employers to promote the ‘high road’ to profitability.
ROC’s studies have shown that the lack of paid sick days and health benefits present special challenges for female restaurant workers, particularly single mothers, and undocumented female immigrant workers, who are not covered under healthcare reform legislation. On September 30, 2010, ROC released Serving While Sick , our first compilation of 4,323 surveys conducted nationwide, which demonstrated that the large majority of restaurant workers (90%) lack paid sick days and health insurance, and thus two-thirds reported cooking and serving food while sick, with dramatic impacts on the consumer. Responding to demand from our members and ‘high road’ employer partners, ROC also developed a National Restaurant Workers Health Insurance Plan. The plan provides affordable limited coverage to all low-wage restaurant workers, particularly those excluded from health reform legislation, and also provides an example of political reform that recognizes the healthcare rights of everyone.
Now, we face tremendous challenge and opportunity. Our major challenge is that the current economic crisis provides our opponents the excuse that this is not the time to force businesses to provide paid sick days or access to health benefits. Our opportunity is that there has never before existed such an organization of workers in one of the nation’s largest private sector employers – the restaurant industry.
Restaurant workers serve as the very real, public face of low-wage workers affected by the lack of paid sick days, and its subsequent impact on consumers. In addition to lifting workers’ voices, ROC has engaged responsible employers around the country to support our work on paid sick days and health insurance. Nationally, ROC has worked closely with the National Partnership for Women & Families , Moms Rising , Multi State Working Families Coalition, and others to win passage of the Healthy Families Act . ROC affiliates have also been involved in local and state paid sick days campaigns and education on health insurance plans in Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and New York. Through this work, ROC seeks to continue to demonstrate that winning paid sick days and increasing health insurance access, particularly to immigrants, are top post-election priorities and that low-wage restaurant workers, particularly women of color, can play in a key role in winning these fights.
*Saru Jayaraman, Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United), is an attorney, organizer, and a professor. Saru is a graduate of Yale Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and co-editor of The New Urban Immigrant Workforce , (ME Sharpe, 2005). Fekkak Mamdouh, Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, is an immigrant from Morocco with over 14 years of experience in the New York City Restaurant Industry. Mamdouh was always a staunch worker advocate and his life has been profiled in the book , The Accidental American , published September 2008 by Barrett-Koehler Press.
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