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New Report Highlights Racial Inequities in the Seattle Restaurant Industry

Workers of color tend to get the lowest paying jobs, while there’s strong evidence of bias in hiring practices among fine-dining establishments

Four chefs work on the line inside a restaurant kitchen, as plates stack up on a nearby counter.
Recent audit tests of Seattle fine-dining restaurants found evidence of biased hiring practices.

On Friday, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) released a new report about racial inequities within the city’s dining scene based on research from Seattle’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). As stated in the report, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionally affected Black people and other people of color, while protests against police brutality have raised greater awareness of systemic injustices. On June 11, Public Health Seattle - King County declared racism a public health emergency.

As restaurants continue their roller coaster reopening in Seattle, the report states that the industry will become the largest source of minimum wage jobs in the region, as well as a significant number of well-paying professional careers — but there are concerns “about who will be rehired and for which positions.” The purpose for the research was to identify the scope of racism within the hospitality industry, hoping to spur some action to address the problems and enact more equitable hiring practices.

In addition to a census that broke down demographics within various restaurant roles, OCR performed what’s called matched pair audit testing, which is a methodology that measures the extent of discriminatory treatment exhibited by an employer of two equally qualified job applicants. Basically, two job applicants are matched on as many characteristics as possible, varying on one observable characteristic — in this case, race and ethnicity. The testing revealed evidence of bias in hiring practices among local fine-dining restaurants.

Among the key findings in the report:

  • While workers of color represent 30 percent of the employed population in Seattle as a whole, they represent 46 percent of the employed restaurant workforce. But those workers aren’t getting the best jobs.
  • Positions throughout both the “front of house” (FOH, meaning the dining floor) and the “back of house” (BOH, referring to the kitchen) are highly segregated by race and ethnicity. Workers of color are concentrated in less visible, lower-wage jobs, and are underrepresented in the highest-paid FOH positions.
  • Only 18 percent of bartenders in Seattle are workers of color. Meanwhile, 26 percent of white bartenders and servers earn a livable wage, compared to 15 percent of bartenders and servers of color in Seattle.
  • OCR conducted audit tests of 105 fine-dining establishments, and found evidence of favoritism toward white applicants in 49 percent of audits, evidence of equal treatment in only 34 percent of audits, and evidence of treatment favoring Black and Latinx applicants in just 17 percent of audits.
  • Of the audits that showed evidence of favoritism toward white applicants, 6.1 percent resulted in job offers, 18.4 percent resulted in call-backs, and 36.7 percent showed strong evidence of bias against applicants of color. Not only that, but 10.2 percent of those audits resulted in people of color being told to apply elsewhere, either far out of town or in ethnic-themed restaurants.

OCR conducted interviews and focus groups as well, in which restaurant workers described firsthand experiences of discrimination from managers, customers, and co-workers. According to the report, this led to patterns of “self-selection bias”: Basically, due to their experiences, workers of color in Seattle tended not to apply for top-tier positions at restaurants because management and/or clientele behavior made them uncomfortable, or because they felt they did not match the image of what was expected.

There are some damning anecdotes throughout the report, in this regard (note that “testers” refers to the applicants in the audit test). One example:

On a Friday in December, a Black female tester and a white female tester in their twenties applied for employment at a fine-dining restaurant in Seattle. Both testers spoke with the general manager, who reviewed their resumes and briefly interviewed both testers. The GM told them the restaurant was not hiring servers at the moment. The GM encouraged the Black tester to apply at a fine dining restaurant far north of the city. The GM joked with the white tester and asked if she had a flexible schedule, if she was interested in a position as host, and if she could start immediately. The GM referred to both testers as “sweetheart” at the end of the interview.

Though the primary focus for the research was on racial disparities, there were also findings revealing gender bias among Seattle restaurants. Research found that men hold 65 to 70 percent of chef, supervisory, and bartender positions, and women hold 57 to 63 percent of lower-earning fast food, food preparation, delivery and room service, host, and server positions.

The city of Seattle is planning to work with local restaurants to address the issues laid out in the report. Part of that effort will include OCR conducting a training session with local restaurant owners by the end of the summer to review more equitable hiring practices, although details of who is participating have not been made public yet.