NCLR says Latinos are overrepresented in lower-paying occupations in food services, such as cooks.

Employment's Bright Spot Hides Injury Problem

The food services sector was one of the few U.S. economic sectors still growing in May 2011. A National Council of La Raza analyst says vulnerable workers in the industry are pressured to hide injuries and forgo treatment, however.

Food services was the bright spot in the U.S. Labor Department's anemic May 2011 hiring and employment report released June 3. Food services and drinking places added 13,600 workers during May, continuing a growth pattern that saw the sector average 31,900 new hires per month from February through April.

But how good are these new jobs? The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) in Washington, D.C., published a new report June 3 about Latino workers in food services pointing out that this sector employs a disproportionately large share of low-wage workers, and Latinos are overrepresented in its lower-paying occupations, such as cooks.

NCLR agreed in May to an alliance with OSHA.

Catherine Singley, senior policy analyst on NCLR's Economic and Employment Policy Project, said NCLR hopes through the alliance to better equip OSHA personnel to act on workers' safety complaints. She said NCLR's part will be communicating with nearly 300 affiliate organizations in 40 states -- social services agencies, job training organizations, and the like -- because they are the first line of contact with workers, she said during a June 3 interview.

"Before the recession, job quality issues were getting a lot of attention," said Singley, who has worked for NCLR for about four years. Speaking about the food services sector's job growth in May, she said, "It's a bit of a bright spot. I don't want to give too much emphasis to it because it's such a large industry, and 13,600 is a really small increase.

"So much of the burden of enforcement has shifted to the workers," she said. "We're calling on government and businesses and workers to re-engage. Government needs to re-enter the equation because it's tilted right now. There's such a problem with underreporting of injuries in the restaurant industry. . . . It's really a race-to-the-bottom industry."

The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United put the spotlight on this problem with its September 2010 report titled "Serving While Sick," Singley said, explaining that workers frequently hide burns, slip-and-fall injuries, and hand and wrist injuries because they feel pressured not to report them and not to seek treatment. Many lack health insurance.

Improving this state of affairs rests mainly with either the Labor Department's OSHA and Wage and Hour Division or food service employers. But at this point, NCLR is not planning to engage the employer groups on these issues, she said. "We're pleased with some of the progress that the Labor Department has been able to make in the last couple of years," Singley said, "but we're looking forward to trying to reach the most vulnerable workers. . . . We haven't tried to engage the industry on this front," and doing so is not included in the OSHA alliance agreement, she added.

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