Restaurants forced workers to fund fight against minimum wage increases

A group of Democratic senators wants to know why the food service industry charges its workers to fight against their own interests.

Training and certification are required by law in New Jersey. Currently, state law requires that at least one person per establishment be ServSafe Food Safety Manager-certified.

The New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association charges $150 per person and $199 for non-members for each class, although some members attend free of charge due to an annual Skills Partnership Grant the trade group receives from the Department of Labor & Workforce Development.

The National Restaurant Association reportedly used $25 million in fees that workers were required to pay for ServSafe food safety classes to “turn waiters and cooks into unwitting funders of its battle against minimum wage increases.”

The restaurant lobby has devoted millions of dollars to stopping legislation that would improve the lives of the industry’s workers — including attempts to raise state and federal minimum wages to $15 per hour.

As it turns out, the workers who stood to gain from those legislative efforts had unwittingly funded the restaurant lobby’s war against them.

A group of Democratic US Senators demanded answers to inquiries about the scheme no later than March 3, 2023, in a letter to National Restaurant Association President Michelle Korsmo. 

United States Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Patty Murray, Ed Markey, Jeff Merkley, and Peter Welch are urging the restaurant trade group to respond to questions about the ServSafe program, its mandatory nature, and how its funds are used.

“We are writing in response to a recent New York Times investigation which revealed that the National Restaurant Association is using millions of dollars in fees paid by food service workers for food safety training courses to instead, ‘largely unbeknown to [the workers]’ – help ‘fund a nationwide lobbying campaign’ against minimum wage increases that would raise these workers’ pay,” wrote the lawmakers.

“The Times report revealed that the Restaurant Association, through its ownership of ubiquitous food safety certifier ServSafe, is charging food service employees for employer- or state-mandated courses and then funneling that money into its federal and state lobbying apparatus to fight against basic worker protections like paid sick leave and a livable minimum wage,” wrote the lawmakers.

“The Association’s use of workers’ food safety course payments – which are mandatory in some states and required by employers in others – is particularly outrageous because workers who take the course are not adequately informed of how their payments are used, and because the National Restaurant Association has, for decades, led the fight against increases in federal, state, and local minimum wages and improved health benefits,” the lawmakers concluded. “You owe workers an answer as to why you are secretly using their funds to lobby against their interests.”

The National Restaurant Association owns and operates ServSafe, which charges food service employees roughly $15 to complete its food safety training.

The training is mandated in several states and required by employers in others; employees often must retake the course every three years.

Alternatives to ServSafe exist, but it dominates as much as 70 percent of the market.

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