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Silence of the lambs

If a neighbor grabbed a bullhorn to blare accusations you were cheating the town out of tax dollars, you might say a word or two in response. If the accuser landed widespread press by charging you with exploiting kids and immigrants who couldn’t find work elsewhere, angry calls would’ve been placed to set the record straight.

So why has the restaurant industry been struck dumb by the worst bashing of its reputation in recent memory?

The University of Illinois and the University of California, Berkeley recently released a report that asserted $7 billion in tax dollars are diverted annually to hourly fast-food workers to make up for their underpayment by employers. Put another way, as the researcher readily did, 52 percent of crew members supplement their pay with public assistance. The percentage for the U.S. workplace as a whole is a mere 25 percent.

The study snagged more headlines than Miley Cyrus could have generated for a twerk at the Vatican. The message was nearly always the same: Hey, taxpayers, you’re subsidizing the income of fast-food workers so multi-billion-dollar chains can stint on wages.

And the industry’s comeback? We’re still waiting for it.

Business would have been stupid to respond in the knee-jerk fashion of 15 years ago, beating its chest about the necessity of low wages if small businesses and their jobs are to survive. There are definitely some bad employers with unenlightened views on compensation and obligations to employees. A discussion of wage escalation falling behind profit growth would have been a legitimate, healthy one.

Instead, the industry was quieter than a mute lamb. It’s particularly vexing because the study wasn’t the unassailable defense of the exploited that it purported to be.

For one thing, it was funded by Fast Food Forward, the group that organized strikes by fast-food workers weeks earlier. The group reportedly is financed by the Service Employees International Union; its stated goal: minimum pay of $15 an hour, the so-called living wage. It’s also pushing for the unionization of the restaurant business.

Among the study’s recommendations: Supplement public assistance programs “either through public policy measures such as living and minimum-wage laws, or through collective bargaining.” Could it really be a coincidence that the study’s findings support the funder’s agendas?

There’s also the matter of the underlying research. The universities didn’t survey fast-food workers to see how many had tapped public assistance. Instead, the researchers calculated the percentages, using databases and incidence rates to work up a number.

It’d be like Restaurant Business running a story headlined, “XX percent of restaurateurs cheat on their spouses,” with the finding based on statistical calculations of how many members of any group tend to philander.

In the silence, other hourly employers fostered a different impression. Walmart announced that it would promote 25,000 staffers to higher-paying jobs in the fourth quarter. Costco drew praise from the Obama Administration for lifting the status of the working poor, an assessment it couldn’t have reached in an information vacuum.

The bad buzz continued for food service. A McDonald’s crew member recorded her call to McResources, a service funded by the burger giant to provide advice and referrals to employees having trouble outside of the job. The caller said she was struggling to support her children. The McResources agent suggested Medicaid and another public assistance program, as the world would learn in a nor’easter of coverage. Once again, the industry looked as if it was burdening taxpayers with problems it created by short-changing employees.

That impression should not have gone unchallenged. Restaurants have provided an upward route to countless people who were barely hanging on to the lowest rung of the economic ladder. Virtually every management team is packed with proof the business provides a leg up, not a leg iron. It’s indisputable that the industry provides opportunity, albeit to those starting at the very bottom.

Restaurants shouldn’t be shy to say so, loudly and often.

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