by Jacqueline Smith

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (“ROC”) is changing the way we interact with the food industry, with the re-launch of the group’s smartphone app Diners Guide.[1] Originally created in 2012, Diners Guide provides restaurant-goers with access to information regarding a restaurant’s employees’ wages and benefits, and allows app users to enter data of restaurants that are not already rated in the system.[2] The app, referred to as the Yelp for labor rights, provides newfound transparency into restaurant employer-employee relationships.[3]

The app’s creator has been named one of the “six groups that are reinventing organized labor.”[4] ROC-NY was originally formed following the September 11, 2001 attacks, in an effort to support the displaced restaurant workers of the World Trade Center.[5] In 2008, ROC became a national movement with the goal of improving wages and working conditions for restaurant workers throughout the United States.[6] Restaurant workers are one of the most vulnerable groups in the workplace, with relatively little unionization, low wages, and high turnover.[7] Thus far, ROC has recouped more than $20 million in stolen tips and wages for restaurant workers, while also actively organizing the worker community to advocate for better workplace conditions and wages.[8] One of ROC’s original co-founders, Saru Jayaraman, likens the organization to a modernized labor union, and says the organization receives a portion of its funding from employers who wish to promote a “‘high road’ for the industry.”[9]

If the restaurant receives a good rating by the app, it is designated as a “High Road” restaurant.[10] The Diners Guide app bases its ratings off of several factors, including, whether the restaurant has paid sick days for its employees, the wages of tipped and non-tipped employees, and whether the restaurant frequently promotes employees internally.[11] For instance, a restaurant’s score increases if the servers are paid above the tipped minimum wage, which is currently set at $2.13 per hour for tipped employees. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) employers must pay a tipped employee the non-tipped minimum wage if the employee’s tips do not make up the difference between the tipped and non-tipped minimum wage; however, this is a rarely enforced provision, considering about 10% of tipped employees’ wages continually fall below the federal minimum wage.[12] By publicizing restaurant employees’ wages and workplace practices, ROC hopes to impassion patrons to pressure management to change policy and add bargaining power to the restaurant employees.[13]

According to Diners Guide, the fast food burger chains In-N-Out Burger and Shake Shack are two of the highest rated restaurants in the U.S., both with ratings of 75%. Some restaurant fast food chains already pay their workers more than the minimum wage requirement.[14] One Detroit burger chain, Moo Cluck Moo, pays workers $15 per hour, compared to the national average of $8 per $9 an hour for fast food workers.[15] The company’s founder attributes the restaurant’s high customer satisfaction and low employee turnover to the increased wages, and further adds that low turnover is better for the company financially because the employer does not waste time and money retraining new employees.[16]

The Diners Guide app exemplifies an interesting phenomenon and is a new useful tool to effect policy change. ROC’s strategy is ingenious, considering Generation Y is known for viewing “corporations as having lots of power but little heart” and the hipster era tends to “try to create change by using their dollars.”[17] In addition to going on strike, restaurant employees may now also pressure their employers by publicizing the employer’s practices on social media and influencing the consumer’s dollar.

[1] Poncie Rutsch, Like Yelp for Labor Rights: This App Rates How Restaurants Treat Workers, NPR (Feb. 12, 2015, 4:45 PM), http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2015/02/12/385739008/like-yelp-for-labor-rights-this-app-rates-how-restaurants-treat-workers.

[2] Dan Schultz, Want to Find a Restaurant That Treats Workers Well? There’s An App for That, NPR (Dec. 10, 2012, 11:22 AM), http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/12/10/166671273/want-to-find-a-restaurant-that-treats-workers-well-theres-an-app-for-that.

[3] Rutsch, supra note 1.

[4] Josh Israel, 6 Groups that are Reinventing Organized Labor, Think Progress (June 27, 2014, 9:51 AM), http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2014/06/27/3451317/labor-groups-outside-union-model/.

[5] Id.

[6] Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, http://rocunited.org (last visited Feb. 17, 2015).

[7] Associated Press, For Tipped Workers, A Different Minimum Wage Battle, NPR (Jun. 29, 2014, 6:45 PM), http://www.npr.org/2014/06/29/326715347/for-tipped-workers-a-different-minimum-wage-battle.

[8] Israel, supra note 4.

[9] Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, supra note 6.

[10] Diners Guide to Ethical Eating, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, http://rocunited.org/dinersguide/ (last visited Feb. 19, 2015).

[11] ROC United, Get ROC United’s Diner Guide App!, YouTube (Feb. 3, 2015), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgN-jClz1vE.

[12] 29 C.F.R. § 531.50 (2011); see National Economic Council et al., The Impact of Raising the Minimum Wage on Women and the Importance of Ensuring a Robust Tipped Minimum Wage, 6 (March 2014), available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/20140325minimumwageandwomenreportfinal.pdf.

[13] See Diners Guide to Ethical Eating, supra note 10.

[14] Allison Aubrey, A Burger Joint Pays $15 An Hour. And, Yes, It’s Making Money, NPR (Dec. 4, 2014, 6:46 PM), http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/12/04/368442087/a-burger-joint-pays-15-an-hour-and-yes-its-making-money.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Who is the Gen Y “Hipster”?, Millennial Marketing, http://www.millennialmarketing.com/2010/01/who-is-the-gen-y-hipster/ (last visited Feb. 19, 2015).

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