Op-Ed: Restaurant Workers' "Nightcare" Double Whammy

Op-Ed: Restaurant Workers' "Nightcare" Double Whammy
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Commuting to work sucks, especially when you live in L.A. It's not only annoying in a soul-crushing kind of way, but takes up enough time that it has a dramatic effect on one’s income. If your salary is $50,000, but it takes you two hours to commute every day, you might feel like you're only making about $40,000 a year. 

As you'd imagine, the lowest-income workers get hit the hardest by this, since they end up taking slower modes of transport while it eats a higher percentage of their income. It's the old classic double whammy —they make less and have to pay more. But a new report highlights something else hitting the low-income workers of the service industry: The cost of child care at night, or "nightcare," for their children.

It works like so: If you're a tipped-based worker in the restaurant industry, the best shifts — those you truly need to take every now and then to make it all worthwhile — are at night, generally Friday and Saturday, when the most customers are dining. But if you're a parent, this is also when it's extremely difficult to find someone to care for your children. How bad is it?

“We estimate there are 400,000 workers, a good half of whom are parents, in New York City,” says Saru Jayaraman, co-director of ROC United, who recently released a study (warning: PDF) looking at this phenomenon. “The city has 11 licensed [child] nightcare providers. But eight are in Manhattan, where restaurant workers do not live.”

Because of the lack of nightcare providers, parents in the industry are either forced to leave the business entirely — Jayaraman says this option is, by far, the most common “solution” — or start to get creative. Often, this means dropping their kid off at an unlicensed, undocumented provider, one that can charge exorbitant rates because of the desperate situation the parents are in. “They basically have a monopoly on the market,” says Jayaraman. Other times, the workers are forced to travel long distances back and forth to the scant providers.

“One story we uncovered is a parent who was a 9/11 responder and works in Queens,” says Jayaraman. “She gets off at two in the morning, gets to the childcare provider in Brooklyn at three, and goes back home. And then takes the child back to the provider at nine in the morning and goes back to her job in Queens. You're talking about very little sleep for the parents, and very disturbed sleep for the children.”

It'd seem that the obvious solution lies in the marketplace. Demand for nightcare is high, so what's needed is an increase in supply. But opening up a childcare facility isn't as simple as posting an ad on Craigslist. States and cities each have their own set of rules for what hoops need to be jumped through in order to be licensed, particularly if they offer overnight care, in which case they need to furnish a safe place to sleep. Rather, the answer likely lies somewhere else.

Jayaraman points to the work of New York restaurateur Danny Meyer, who ended tipping and instituted a revenue share program in his restaurants. By doing so, Meyer guaranteed his servers would make a certain amount no matter what shift they’re working. “We found that, over a period of months, a Friday and Saturday night shift was as lucrative as a Wednesday breakfast and lunch,” says Jayaraman. Because of the leveling of income potential, parents were free to work day shifts, when the number of open childcare providers is dramatically increased.

When Jayaraman is asked about what the incentive would be for any worker to choose the busy Friday and Saturday night shifts if they're not being paid more, she counters deftly. “There's something wonderful about a Friday or Saturday night shift,” Jayaraman says. “It's when most people are eating out. You hone your craft. You have customers who know you for years and years. Hospitality professionals take great joy and pride in the work.”

And it's this sense of restaurant work as a real profession that's missing in the conversation when it comes to workers' rights. If this problem with child nightcare occurred in any industry other than the one where workers accept a pathetic minimum wage in the hopes of earning more in tips, well, it wouldn't be a problem. “In a profession, people enjoy their craft and are also able to have children,” she says. “Maybe they take a different role, but things allow them to accommodate while their kids are young. Every profession allows for that but this one, because they haven't treated their workers as professionals all along.”

The biggest issue with the nightcare problem for restaurant workers, then, isn't lack of providers. It's the misguided way we’ve viewed the industry in the first place. Forcing parents in the restaurant industry to choose between work and family is not a bug, it’s a feature. And it can only be truly fixed when the entire program is rewritten.


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