Ire is spreading among restaurant workers in several cities, including Chicago, about required food and beverage safety training programs that industry insiders say fund anti-minimum-wage lobbying efforts.
The National Restaurant Association operates and administers a food and beverage safety training program by the name of ServSafe. In Illinois, anyone who works in a restaurant or kitchen must complete certification from a program like ServSafe. Costs range from $15 to upwards of $1,000 for those seeking managerial certifications.
A January New York Times report revealed how the national organization, which runs the certification program, in turn uses that money to fund lobbying campaigns that fight minimum wage increases at both state and federal levels.
Because restaurant workers are tipped employees, they are not always covered by changes to minimum wage laws. Servers and other staffers who work for tips tend to be covered by subminimum wage laws, which set a lower threshold – in Illinois, it’s currently $7.80 per hour – with the reasoning that they will earn more in tips.
Wage advocacy groups such as One Fair Wage have been fighting for service workers to receive a full minimum wage – and keep their tips.
Since the Times story published, workers nationally have protested against the use of ServSafe funds for lobbying against raising minimum and subminimum wages.
So far, rallies in Chicago have attracted a small, but vocal group of food service workers. The group One Fair Wage organized a trip Thursday to Springfield to garner support for a proposed bill that will eliminate subminimum wage in Illinois.The National Restaurant Association is based in Washington, D.C., but has an Illinois chapter headquartered in the Loop. A Feb. 14 rally in front of the National Restaurant Association’s Chicago headquarters brought out restaurant industry worker Julio Morano.
Morano, a former server at a North Side Applebee’s, said at the rally that, if the restaurant association insists on charging fees for workers to complete ServSafe certification, he’d prefer funds from the mandatory training go towards lobbying for legislation that would protect workers from abrupt layoffs.
“I showed up to work one day in 2019 and the doors were locked,” said Morano. “They closed their doors on us without any warning, wouldn’t pick up the phone, wouldn’t answer any questions about what was going on, and I never got my final paycheck, yet ServSafe is working against us.”
That day, protesters held up a poster board with a timeline of the “racist, fraudulent history of the other NRA” – a play on words comparing the National Restaurant Association to the National Rifle Association.
Asked about the Times report, Chip Bouchard, a spokesperson for the Illinois Restaurant Association, said the state association supported an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour when the measure went before Chicago’s City Council in 2019. The group at the time lobbied in favor of increasing minimum wage but keeping a subminimum wage for restaurant workers, although some aldermen argued the subminimum wage should be eliminated and every worker paid at least $15 an hour.
Bouchard said in an emailed statement to WBEZ that the New York Times article included “several misrepresentations for the state of Illinois and the IRA, specifically.” He pointed to the IRA’s support for a subminimum wage increase that would pay $9 for tipped workers by 2025.
Bouchard said the group has also supported efforts to preserve a tax credit that encourages restaurant owners to boost pay for tipped workers.
The Illinois Food Handling Regulation Enforcement Act was passed in 2013 and mandates training in Illinois for anyone hired to prepare, store, or serve food; handle food equipment, food utensils, or food-contact surfaces. Illinois requires workers to obtain a certificate within 30 days of hire (though some restaurants require prospective employees to have the certification before starting a new job). A copy of a passing score of 75% or higher is kept on file at all times, as it may be requested during health inspections.
ServSafe isn’t the only training program in existence, but the NRA-managed program is the most widely used. The NRA says that workers have a choice on who they chose to pay for certification.
“While general food handler training is required in Illinois, no one program is mandated,” said Vanessa Sink in a statement emailed to WBEZ on behalf of the National Restaurant Association. “Workers and owners alike have a wide range of choices of where to get the training because food safety training is an incredibly competitive environment.”
The 90-question mandatory ServSafe training has long been a point of contention among workers. Employers are not obligated to pay for the test fees, or to pay employees for the time they spend preparing and taking the training and test. Tests are valid for three years and must be renewed if they plan to continue working as a food handler.
The New York Times estimated that 3.6 million workers across the country have paid nearly $25 million in ServSafe training fees that have gone towards lobbying efforts against raising the minimum wage for service industry workers. A class action lawsuit among service workers has been filed in New York.
Organizers for One Fair Wage said they are hosting a “Serve the Server” event in Springfield Thursday, where legislators will be asked to serve One Fair Wage members lunch. The hope is that legislators will see how grueling service work can be.
“We hope this gets them to see what all goes into working as a server, and get them to see that we deserve $15 at minimum, plus tips,” said Nataki Rhodes, the lead network organizer for One Fair Wage. “It gives them a chance to walk in our shoes.”
In Springfield, One Fair Wage is seeking the support of House Bill 5139, which would eliminate the subminimum wage by 2025, making room for workers to earn a minimum of $15 per hour plus their tips. State Representative Camille Lilly introduced the bill.
Samantha Callender is a digital reporting fellow for WBEZ. Follow her across socials @OnYourCallender.