Anyone who’s ever worked in the food industry knows the drill: Before officially starting your gig you must be subjected to hours of training videos, covering everything from food safety to harassment to the best phrases to use when describing dishes to customers. Passing tests in programs like ServSafe are often mandatory for employment, and that requirement also costs the new employee a small fee. While it might not seem like much money in the moment, it turns out those fees have been adding up to support the fight against better pay for restaurant workers.
What is ServSafe?
While there are a few different ways that employers can implement training, ServSafe is the leading program in the field. The company offers training programs focused on food management, food handling, alcohol, allergens, and more, each for $15. New workers must pay that fee out of their pocket, then sit through the 90-minute programs before being tested on them, and in some cases workers might need to go through the training again (and pay the fee again) to maintain proper certification. In at least four states, this training is required by law, but participation is standard nationwide.
ServSafe is a product of the National Restaurant Association (NRA). A portion of ServSafe’s website reads:
As the premier provider of educational resources, materials and programs to help attract and develop a strong industry workforce, ServSafe has been the restaurant industry’s leading association since 1919 and, together with the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation, our goal is to lead America’s restaurant industry into a new era of prosperity, prominence, & participation, enhancing the quality of life for all we serve.
But a New York Times report has revealed that the connection between ServSafe and the NRA doesn’t support restaurants workers’ best interests.
How the National Restaurant Association is using ServSafe fees
According to The New York Times, those $15 training fees have added up to about $25 million worth of revenue since 2010, and that money has been funneled into the NRA’s lobbying efforts. While the partnership itself is legal, the connection has been hidden from restaurant workers for years. That’s because the NRA lobbies in support of restaurants, not restaurant workers, and the association has been actively fighting against raising the minimum wage.
In 2007, Congress passed an increase in the federal minimum wage to $7.25/hour, where it still stands today. At the time, the NRA argued against the change, saying that the previous raise to the minimum wage caused the industry to lose 146,000 jobs and postponed the hiring of another 106,000 workers. Soon after the minimum wage was, in fact, increased, the NRA bought ServSafe and started using it as a fundraising venture.
It was easy to convince the industry to start using the program—it was pushed as a matter of safety, helping to prevent things like food-borne illnesses that would shut down restaurants. And while there was some precedent for employers to cover the cost of the training, it quickly became standard that the employees themselves would have to open up their wallets to ensure they got hired. Never in the process is it mentioned or made clear that those fees are being used for lobbying purposes. For more than a decade, restaurant industry workers have been unknowingly financing efforts to keep their own wages low.
Representatives from the NRA maintain that all these efforts are in support of restaurants, telling The New York Times, “The association’s advocacy work keeps restaurants open; it keeps workers employed, it finds pathways for worker opportunity, and it keeps our communities healthy.”
Keeping communities healthy requires two things that the NRA has shown it doesn’t support: transparency and adequate resources. Raising the minimum wage alongside rising cost of living expenses and inflation just makes sense. Asking the very workers you’re trying to exploit to fund their own downfall does not.
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