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Racial Bias Seen in Hiring of Waiters

Expensive restaurants in New York discriminate based on race when hiring waiters, a new study has concluded. The study was based on experiments in which pairs of applicants with similar résumés were sent to ask about jobs. The pairs were matched for gender and appearance, said Marc Bendick Jr., the economist who conducted the study. The only difference was race, he said.
White job applicants were more likely to receive followup interviews at the restaurants, be offered jobs, and given information about jobs, and their work histories were less likely to be investigated in detail, he said Tuesday. He spoke at a news conference releasing the report in a Manhattan restaurant.

“There really should not be a lot of difference in how the two of them are treated,” Mr. Bendick said. He was hired by advocacy groups for restaurant workers as part of a larger report called “The Great Service Divide: Occupational Segregation and Equality in the New York City Restaurant Industry.” He has made a career of studying discrimination, ranging from racism in the advertising industry to sexism in firefighting.

Mr. Bendick said that in industries, such experiments typically found discrimination 20 to 25 percent of the time. In New York restaurants, it was found 31 percent of the time.

“That tells us that is a particularly serious situation of discrimination,” he said. “The rate of discrimination is worse for jobs that are really worth having. You don’t get a lot of discrimination for hamburger-flipping jobs at McDonalds.”

The jobs at expensive restaurants in New York can be particularly lucrative. “These are the jobs that you can make $55,000 to $100,000 a year,” Mr. Bendick said.

Andrew Rigie, director of operations for the greater New York chapter of the New York State Restaurants Association, who was at the news conference at which the report was released, said the report brought up important points.

“Anything that is in the study, we are able to better educate our members,” he said. “The restaurant industry in New York City really provides upward mobility for people of all races, genders and backgrounds.” His organization, a trade association, did not participate in the study but has taken an interest in the results.

For the experiment, Mr. Bendick hired 37 people to act as white, black, Asian-American and Latino job applicants. Black candidates included African Americans, African immigrants and those with Caribbean backgrounds.

The pairs were matched for age, appearance and gender, trained to have similar mannerisms and answer questions in similar ways. Their arrival at restaurants offering jobs was arranged so that the average time between the two candidates was 37 minutes. Applicants were sent to 181 restaurants, resulting in 138 complete tests between January 2006 and June 2007.

“The important thing is that we repeat the experiment dozens of times so that we can be pretty sure when a pattern emerges that it really is differences in employer behaviors and it not a random effect,” he said.

According to the test results:

Nonwhite job applicants were 54.5 percent as likely as white applicants to get a job offer, and were less likely than white testers to receive a job interview in the first place.
The work experience of white job applicants was less likely to be subject to scrutiny.
Accents made a difference — with white candidates. White applicants with slight European accents were 23.1 percent more likely to be hired than white testers with no accent. However, accents in nonwhite applicants made no difference.
The report was commissioned by the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York and The New York City Restaurant Industry Coalition, two groups behind a 2005 study of restaurant workplace practices, “Behind the Kitchen Door: Pervasive Inequality in New York’s Thriving Restaurant Industry” [pdf].

“That’s when we started seeing a lot of discrimination between front of the house, the serving positions, and back of the house, the kitchen position,” said Rekha Eanni-Rodriguez, director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center.

She said Monday that workers had long approached them with stories of discrimination in the front of the house, where they were never able to get promotions beyond being a busboy or a runner. The groups realized that “We need more than worker stories. We need to test it out ourselves.”

The groups approached Mr. Bendick, a partner in a consulting firm, because of his previous work. His work has attracted attention recently with a report on discrimination in the advertising industry, Research Perspectives on Race and Employment in the Advertising Industry [pdf], and a report on sexual discrimination in firefighting, “Enhancing Women’s Inclusion in Firefighting” [pdf]. “He’s a big name in testing, one of the biggest,” Ms. Eanni-Rodriguez said.

Mr. Bendick said he had seen the 2005 study, “where they did quite a credible job.”

“There are a lot of allegations, a lot of suspicions around, that there was a lot of discrimination against people of color in the restaurant industry,” Mr. Bendick said. “The advantage of this testing and this testing methodology is that it looks at that allegation very directly.”

The study, which was supported by foundation grants, cost over $150,000 and was well worth the investment, Ms. Eanni-Rodriguez said. “When we are talking about an issue as complex and controversial as race and discrimination, you want to cover all your bases.”

“It’s not just a matter of a few bad apples. We do believe it’s an industrywide trend,” said Ms. Eanni-Rodriguez, who said she it prompts restaurants to scrutinize themselves.

Among the policy proposals the report offered was legislation requiring that restaurants adopt uniform promotion policies and make job information for highly-paid positions available. “We hope that absolute change comes out of it, not just awareness,” she said.