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While Olive Garden Donates Food, Its Employees Are on Public Assistance

Words by Leon Kaye

The Walmartization of American workers, as in companies paying their workers such a low wage that they often end up on public assistance programs such as SNAP (food stamps) while receiving publicly-funded healthcare thanks to Medicaid, reaches beyond the world of retail. The food industry also contributes to the fact that at least 31 million Americans are enrolled within some form of federally-funded health care. Many of them work within Darden Restaurants, the largest restaurant company in the U.S. and the operator of the enduring Olive Garden chain.

Because they receive tips, many servers at restaurants such as Olive Garden are paid a minimum wage far below what the U.S. government requires for most workers. One of them is Kelly Ditson, who works at one of Darden’s Pittsburgh-area locations.

Last fall, she penned an open letter about her struggles working as a server in order to support her two young children. In a follow-up interview with Quartz, Ms. Ditson discussed some of the oddities she has encountered while working for Olive Garden. One paradox that stands out is that, while the company says it has donated tens of millions of meals to hungry Americans since 2003 as part of its corporate citizenship agenda, Ms. Ditson claims employees cannot bring home leftover food and many get by on the SNAP program. Meanwhile, she is one of millions of Americans in the restaurant sector whose reliance on public assistance could cost American taxpayers as much as $9.5 billion annually.

Naturally, the industry’s powerful lobbying force, the National Restaurant Association (or, ahem, the NRA), has a knee-jerk response to any form of legislation that seeks to remedy the economic situation in which many restaurant employees find themselves — and it's quick to cite any study showing that raising the tipped-worker minimum wage will do nothing but sabotage jobs while raising prices.

Ms. Ditson was flown to a Darden Restaurants’ shareholders meeting in Orlando last fall, and was told that the company would listen to her concerns and those of her coworkers. Proposals that employee representatives floated to Darden’s board, including the reinstatement of the auto-gratuity (in which a tip is imposed for large meal parties, a typical policy at most restaurants), however, have allegedly gone nowhere.

To that end, Ms. Ditson and other Darden employees have been active with Dignity at Darden, which seeks greater employee representation when the company makes new business decisions, as well as fair wages and improved working conditions. Their activism has been backed up by ROC-United, a nonprofit that was first founded to help displaced restaurant workers in the aftermath of 9/11, but is now focused on workplace justice issues within the restaurant industry.

This is an uphill fight for Darden Restaurants' employees, who are pitted against the other powerful “NRA” and a recalcitrant Congress that will unlikely take any action soon. The National Restaurant Association has a long record of success when it comes to scoring what it wants, or actually, avoiding what it does not want, from Capitol Hill. For example, when former President Bill Clinton suggested reducing the tax deductibility of business-related meals in his 1993 budget, the association fought hard to remove it from the final bill passed by Congress.

It’s time for the restaurant industry to find a way to meet the needs of both restaurant workers and consumers. Many Americans have empathy for restaurant workers — at one point most of us waited on tables and hoarded those gratuities either to save money for education or to support ourselves while we were between jobs.

At the same time, the American tipping culture has become absurd. Chat with a New Yorker or Manhattan visitor and the chances are that they were flagged down for “only” tipping 15 percent, not the unwritten 18 to 20 percent that is expected. Tip jars at places such as bakeries are bizarre (isn’t it that person’s job to put those pastries in that box?), and it is always a head-scratcher why a barista should get a tip but one who cooks burgers behind the scenes does not have that same access to extra cash. Speak to someone visiting the U.S. for the first time, and most likely he or she will mention the ridiculousness of how tips are expected just about everywhere.

But the combination of low-paying jobs and the high cost of living has driven the U.S. to this tipping point. In many countries, restaurant and cafe workers are paid a salary, or establishments impose a service charge, usually 10 percent. It is time for American restaurants to find a middle ground: Pay their employees a livable wage, embed those prices in the cost of food (as servers are not servants and need to be treated with dignity) and eliminate the gratuity. If the National Restaurant Association wants to avoid additional regulations, pushing its member businesses to enact change for the better of its workers would be a strong start.

Image credit: Flickr/Shruti

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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