Salmon with a Side of Justice? Not On Our Menu!

by Josh Vlahakis

The restaurant industry in the United States, employing over 11 million workers (Jayaraman, 2016), is the nation’s second-largest industry (Henderson, 2012). Despite this, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014) estimates that of the ten lowest-paying occupations in the United States, seven of them are positions found within the restaurant industry.

How can it be that one of the nation’s fastest growing industries is exacerbating poverty at a much greater level than other industries? The worst part of it is that many restaurant workers do not see the exploits of their labor; many of them do not know their rights or how to detect if they are being treated unlawfully. This is a social issue that is often overlooked and underreported; those who have worked in restaurants witness or experience injustices on a daily basis: no paid sick-time, wage theft, not being paid time-and-a-half for overtime work, etc. Oftentimes, restaurants employ undocumented immigrants who are afraid to speak up due to losing their job or the possibility of deportation.

Like many people in the United States, I enjoy going out to eat in restaurants, almost as much as I enjoy working in one, but it is hard to fully enjoy my experiences knowing how difficult it is for some restaurant workers to make ends meet and ultimately get treated humanely by their management.

Fortunately, the Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC-United), a community-oriented organization, was founded to research and practice how restaurants can and should treat their workers more fairly. This organization understands the influence employers have on their employees, who create a social context in which marginalized restaurant workers are penalized for speaking up for themselves.

However, ROC-United empowers workers to stand together in the face of injustice using Urie Bronfenbrenner’s developmental approach, understanding that the individual and environment have a bidirectional influence on one another (Scott & Wolfe, 2015). As an intern and member of ROC-United, I preach to fellow restaurant workers that restaurants will continue their unjust ways if they remain unchallenged. I encourage them to practice what Bond (1999) describes as “connected disruption,” (p. 350) where the dynamics of a particular institution are challenged in order to “disturb complacency” (Evans, 2015, p. 360).

I have worked in a restaurant for nearly five years and am very passionate about the work I do and those with whom I interact. I love having the ability to meet people from innumerable cultures and backgrounds with the opportunity to brighten up their day. In such a rapidly-growing industry, why does it have to be designed to keep people in poverty? In short, it doesn’t have to be!

I joined ROC-United to help provide a stronger voice for the disenfranchised communities affected by corrupt malpractice. This organization practices many of the competencies of community psychology, including community inclusion and partnership. This is achieved through meticulous and tireless attempts to build an audible voice to ALL restaurant workers experiencing an array of different injustices. In order to promote diversity throughout the various positions in a restaurant, ROC-United also practices sociocultural and cross-cultural competence to demonstrate that the quality of front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house positions alike would benefit from a stronger demographic representation. If restaurant employers prioritized the quality of justice served to their employees, the level of guest retention would increase and employee turnover would decrease—two of the major objectives employers strive to achieve.

Social justice for restaurant workers directly impacts the overall health of our communities. Oftentimes, employees are forced to work while sick because they are told they will be fired otherwise (Jayaraman, 2013). In most restaurants, employees don’t have paid sick-time, which makes it nearly impossible to miss work for those who cannot afford a day off. These practices, which have become the norm in the restaurant industry, infuriate me to no end.

I got involved with ROC-United because I love working in a restaurant, and know many others who do as well, and we feel that we should be entitled to the same rights as those in other industries. These rights would not only impact the worker, but the overall health of our communities. People are more likely to go out to eat at a restaurant that they know treats their employees like human beings. If you work in a restaurant or know someone who does, please encourage them to share their stories anonymously with ROC-United or attend our “Know Your Rights” meetings that teach restaurant workers how to actively and legally resist wrongful practices by their employer.


#UML #commpsych #ROC #ROCBoston #OneFairWage


Josh Vlahakis is a graduate student in the Community Social Psychology department at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.



Bond, M. A. (1999). Gender, race, and class in organizational contexts. American Journal of  Community Psychology, 27(3), 327-355.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics (OES), 2014 []. National cross-industry estimates sorted by median hourly wage for all standard occupational classifications.

Evans, S. D. (2015). The community psychologist as critical friend: Promoting critical       community praxis. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 25(4), 355-368.

Henderson, R. (2012). Industry employment and output projections to 2020. Monthly Lab. Rev., 135, 65.

Jayaraman, S. (2013). Behind the kitchen door. Cornell University Press.

Jayaraman, S. (2016). Forked: A New Standard for American Dining. Oxford University Press.

Scott, V. C., & Wolfe, J. K. (2015). Community psychology: Foundations for practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

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