By Brandon Meginley
In 23 years as a White House chef, Ronnie Seaton prepared meals for five presidents and many distinguished guests. A certified master chef from New Orleans, Seaton has been in kitchens all of his life, and he knows that no matter who the diner is, kitchen work helps many people feed their own families.
"If you're going to work hard, you should be paid for what you do," Seaton said.
Seaton was the keynote speaker Tuesday at a panel discussion following the release of a study by the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New Orleans (ROC-NOLA), a policy and worker advocacy group. The study is based on 530 worker surveys plus focus groups and extended interviews with workers and employers. The study concludes that the local restaurant industry is overwhelmingly comprised of low-wage jobs offering few benefits and offered recommendations to improve wages, job security and help employers create better working environments.
According to the study, 28 percent of those surveyed live below the poverty line, 38 percent reported overtime wage violations, and 3 percent earned below the minimum wage. The executive summary of the report is here.
The study also looked at workplace discrimination issues.
"Women, especially women of color, seem to occupy places in the fast-food industry, while white male individuals seem to occupy fine-dining restaurants," said Keron Blair, a panelist and executive director of the Interfaith Worker Justice, a nonprofit advocacy group.
In a section on discrimination, the study found that 8 percent of women surveyed said they were sexually harassed in the workplace. In interviews, many women said they were expected to flirt or otherwise respond to sexual advances.
The study also found that African-American workers are 40 percent more likely to work in the kitchen than they are to work as servers in the 'front of the house,' where wages are higher and there is more room for advancement. The inverse was true for white workers.
Wendy Waren, vice president of communications at The Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA), says her organization does not recognize ROC-NOLA as an authoritative source of information.
They tend to find disgruntled employees, so we dont feel like its a very representative sample of the conditions in our industry, Waren said.
Waren says the LRA, which represents more than 7,000 businesses statewide, is working to recapture the tourist industry in New Orleans and to keep people employed in the restaurant industry.
For the most part, our industry did not participate in this survey, she said.
ROC-NOLA made a number of recommendations in an executive summary to improve conditions. Their recommendations include increasing the minimum wage and ending practices described as wage theft.
Seaton says improved working conditions benefit workers, employers and customers. Even at the White House, he lobbied to upgrade salaries and benefits, he said.
"If you have an interest in your business, then you'll give more work," Seaton said. "You won't be looking at a clock when you walk in the door. You'll have higher standards of how you handle food. You'll treat it as if it's your product, and not somebody else's product."
Seaton's father and daughter currently run the award-winning Willie Mae's Scotch House in Mid-City. It was recognized nationally after receiving the America's Classic award from the James Beard Foundation in 2006.