Support for Restaurant Workers Includes Reproductive Freedom

The low-wage, often no-benefits work common in the food-service industry compromises laborers' ability to plan or provide for their families, get abortion care, and afford other health services. It's especially difficult for undocumented immigrant workers to advocate for their rights.

Labor laws in the restaurant industry also often go unenforced, something that largely affects undocumented immigrants. Fabiano Silva/Getty Images for SOBEWFF®

There isn’t a single aspect of the dining experience that isn’t touched by exploited immigrant labor, whether it’s harvesting produce or actual food preparation. Undocumented immigrants—who make up an estimated 1.3 million of the industry’s 12 million workforce—have kept U.S. restaurants running while they live below the poverty line and receive no fringe benefits such as insurance. They also have little protection against abuse, detainment, and deportation. 

These are little-recognized reproductive justice issues. But two Bay Area organizations are trying to connect the dots between labor practices and reproductive health and freedom. On Monday, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers’ Bay Area chapter (known as ROC the Bay) partnered with ACCESS Women’s Health Justice for an Oakland event called “Restaurant Work Supporting Families: Creating Sanctuary Restaurants & Sanctuary Bodies.”

“Many low-wage workers who prepare and serve food at restaurants across the country cannot afford to put food on their own table, so what does this mean for a restaurant worker who may want to have a family or who supports a family?” Evelyn Rangel-Medina told Rewire in a phone interview.

Rangel-Medina is co-director of the National Tipped Workers Legal Resource Center at the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, the organization behind the emerging sanctuary restaurant movement. Much like sanctuary cities, sanctuary restaurants are intended to be safe spaces for undocumented immigrants; participating eateries agree to anti-discrimination policies; post signs that pronounce their sanctuary status; and receive know-your-rights training to help protect immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and LGBTQ people.

“It makes sense if you think about it. It’s about having the right to choose the type of family that you want to have and having the access to a dignified workplace that gives you the wages you deserve and working conditions free of discrimination, harassment, and sexual violence,” Rangel-Medina said. “The restaurant industry has the most incidents of reported sexual harassment in the country. We started working with ACCESS to have these intersectional conversations and be able to move into organizing together so we don’t have to operate in silos, especially now when reproductive justice, the rights of workers, and the rights of immigrants are at stake.”

Serving Up Justice, a 2016 ACCESS publication about abortion access and reproductive justice in restaurant work, made these connections very clear. It shared the stories of women like Lupe (not her real name), who was a teenager working in a Bay Area restaurant and pregnant from a rape that occurred when she was crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Lupe was sent to two different clinics and initially wrongfully denied Medi-Cal for her abortion, which she could not pay for as an uninsured low-wage worker.

But restaurant workers experience reproductive justice issues that go beyond abortion, as the report noted. When they experience “racialized and gendered divisions of labor” that hinder their advancement, it also hinders their ability to provide economic security to their family. The Economic Policy Institute reported that in 2014, one in six restaurant workers lived below the poverty line, with the median hourly wage in the restaurant industry being $10—including tips.

Labor laws in the industry also often go unenforced, something that largely affects undocumented immigrants, who are the most vulnerable to exploitation. According to the National Health Interview Survey, only 11 percent of restaurant workers have access to paid sick leave, and even fewer have access to paid family leave. Working long hours without eating, sitting, or using the bathroom can have serious impacts on those who are chronically ill or pregnant, and there is little ability to change jobs or positions in the workplace to accommodate these health needs, according to ACCESS’ report.

Sara Spriggs, a Serving Up Justice co-author, told Rewire the publication was written before the election, but the Trump administration’s attacks on vulnerable communities has made bridging the reproductive justice movement and the fights for restaurant workers’ economic and labor rights even more crucial.

“Reproductive justice issues are daily concerns in the lives of restaurant workers. We’re forging these partnerships because we know a shift in the restaurant industry would make a tremendous impact on the lives of low-wage workers, immigrant workers, women of color, and immigrant women—all of whom make up the biggest percentage of the restaurant industry,” Spriggs said.

Monday’s event featured a panel with workers, employers, academics, parents, activists, and policymakers discussing how restaurant owners, co-workers, and community members can support each other under the Trump administration. It was followed by know-your-rights workshops and their annual Day of Action, marking the official launch of their sanctuary restaurants campaign.

Rangel-Medina told Rewire that 120 restaurants nationwide have already signed on to be part of the sanctuary restaurants movement, sending the message that in their places of business, there will be a zero-tolerance policy for racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia.

Salt Lake City’s Sugar House Coffee is the only Utah eatery that has signed on to become a sanctuary restaurant. Co-owner Emily Potts said that she heard about the campaign on Facebook, but even before that, she prioritized providing local communities “with a safe gathering space” for meeting and sharing their stories.

“I believe our employees work here because it’s a safe place for them and our customers. To me, it’s important to be inclusive of everyone—that everyone feels safe, no matter their race, immigration [status], or gender identity,” Potts told Rewire. “Right now, it’s important to stand up.”

Rangel-Medina recommends that families and workplaces create a “community-based plan for action,” a strategy many organizations are adopting in the face of the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant executive orders and recent nationwide raids, which have resulted in the detainment of more than 600 undocumented immigrants. According to immigrant rights organizations like Mijente, these plans should identify the needs and demands of the community, get local elected and appointed officials to support these demands, and create “community defense zones” where local residents are mobilized to fight for expanded sanctuary.

“Having a community-based plan of action at a family level and workplace level means that you have a contingency plan. If the worst happens, your family, your workplace, and your community can respond in a way that’s more protective for you and your family,” Rangel-Medina said. “If our community is targeted, this is how we can fight back. We must protect ourselves and each other.”