A closer look at the food service industry in America

Hannah Valencia and Emily Merrill

Hannah Valencia, Senior Reporter

Food service workers have become a necessary part of modern life. However, the demand for food service workers has not equated to their respect. Workers in the food industry are often faced with challenges such as understaffing and unruly customers, which, in combination with the low wages that are typical for this industry, make food service a challenging occupation.

The demand for food service workers in the U.S. is continuing to increase rapidly. Overall employment for food service workers is projected to grow 17% from 2020 to 2030, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. Over a million openings are projected each year in this industry over the next decade.

While the demand for food service workers is high, the pay for workers in this industry has not caught up. Some states are better than others when it comes to wages for food service workers, but these higher wages are associated with the higher costs of living in these areas.

For example, Washington is the highest-paying state for food service workers, with an average hourly pay of $15.51. This hourly wage is about 73% higher than the lowest-paying state for food service workers, Louisiana, which has an average hourly pay of $8.96. However, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Washington is $2155.07, 102% higher than the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Louisiana, $1065.25.

According to data from 2020, the average salary in the U.S. is $71,456 per year, while the average salary for food service workers is $22,000. This means that the average person in the U.S. makes $49,456 more per year than the average food service worker, which is about 225% more income.

In the U.S., the amount of respect associated with someone’s job usually correlates with the job’s salary and the amount of education/perceived skill it takes to do that job. According to a study conducted by YouGovAmerica in 2020, the three most respected professions in the U.S. are medical doctor, scientist and architect.

Medical doctors make around $210,403 per year according to the latest data and this job requires about 12 years of post-high school education. Scientists make around $70,494 per year according to the latest data and most individuals with this job have at least a bachelor’s degree in their scientific specialty, with many having doctorate degrees. Architects make around $82,499 per year according to the latest data and this job requires completing a bachelor’s degree in architecture and a three-year internship before taking the Architect Registration Examination. This examination is a requirement to receive licensure in the state that the aspiring architect wishes to practice in.

Considering this formula for job respect, it is not surprising that food service workers do not receive much respect for their jobs. According to a 2017 study conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about three-fifths of all workers paid at or below the federal minimum wage are employed in the food service industry. This means that food service workers are some of the lowest-paid workers in the nation. In terms of education level, most food service workers possess a high school diploma or less. Therefore, food service workers tend to be at the bottom when it comes to pay and education level.

The average salary in the U.S. has gone from $39,238 per year in 2000 to $71,456 in 2020, an increase of about 82%. However, the federal minimum wage has only been raised from $5.15 an hour (1997) to $7.25 an hour (2009), an increase of about 41%. Employees working for federal minimum wage are about 50% behind the rest of the nation in terms of wage increase, leaving them far behind in today’s economy.

Although many states have raised their individual minimum wages, 21 out of 50, 42%, remain at the federal minimum of $7.25. In addition, only six out of 50 states, 12%, have minimum wages for tipped workers that are equal to the state’s minimum wage. The federal tipped wage of $2.13 is still used in 16 out of 50 states, 32%. Earning tips has the potential to make minimum wage more livable. However, with the majority of states separating minimum wages between tipped and non-tipped food service workers, tips do not make as big of a difference for these workers’ earnings.

Some people may say that food service workers should earn a meager salary because their jobs are not that difficult and do not require post-secondary education. However, this presents a problem because, without these workers, there would not be a food service industry.

There is an obvious demand for these workers, but the low pay does not equate to a growing number of people working in this field. At the end of the day, the purpose of work is survival. If your job is not meeting your financial needs, the most logical course of action is finding a job that will.

Will the food service industry raise wages enough to keep its employees or will food service workers become extinct?