by Howard Stephenson


During a recent luncheon, two Utah legislators and an intern sat comfortably eating sandwiches and soup at a Draper restaurant.  The reason for the meeting was to discuss the numerous problems stemming from our nation’s broken immigration system; a topic of significance to all three individuals at the table.  The conversation persisted for over an hour as each person passionately described his views about what must occur in order for the United States to produce a fair, humane, and an appropriate immigration and guest worker policy.  About three quarters of the way through the exchange an employee of the restaurant politely interrupted the discussion and asked in broken English if he could clear the table of their finished plates.  The unexceptional incident could have easily been overlooked, but it wasn’t.  This is because when the worker, who clearly was not from the United States, asked to clear the table, it revealed that the state legislators and the intern were not just unaffected by-standers discussing the immigration policy purely in theory; no, their ironic experience of being served by an immigrant while debating the immigration dilemma in our country demonstrated how all-encompassing America’s immigration and guest worker situation had become.
If it is not already obvious, two of the three people in the experience recounted above were the authors of this article.  Though our experience may have been paradoxical, it is hardly unique.  This is because the restaurant industry in Utah epitomizes the extent to which our nation and our state have become reliant on an immigrant workforce.  Moreover, the Utah restaurant industry typifies the concern we have alluded to throughout this series of articles regarding Utah’s need of legal immigrant laborers due to our state’s low unemployment numbers and our high job growth rate.
Guest workers are critical to Utah’s hospitality industry
The statistics relating to the growth in both the United States’ and Utah’s restaurant industries are phenomenal.  For instance, according to the National Restaurant Association (NRA), the restaurant industry has grown from an industry producing $42.8 billion dollars a year nationwide in 1970, to one that boasts a projected $536.9 billion in sales in 2007.  That amount represents more than $1.5 billion in sales a day!   Remarkably, the NRA reported that, “Including the impact restaurants have on sales in related industries, the industry’s overall impact on the U.S. economy is $1.3 trillion a year.”  Moreover, according to Melva Sine, President of the Utah Restaurant Association, Americans now spend approximately 52% of their household food budget eating out.  That number has doubled since ten years ago when the figure was between 24% and 26%.  Obviously, Americans enjoy dining out.
Utah’s restaurant industry numbers are also fascinating, because according to Mrs. Sine, while the average American eats out seven times a week, Utahns dine out only four times a week.  Nonetheless, the Utah restaurant industry job growth rate, consistent with the rest of our state’s job growth rate, outpaces the restaurant industry’s rate nationwide:  the growth rate is 1.9% in the U.S. versus 2.8% here in Utah.  Thus, while we in Utah on average do not go out to eat as often as the rest of America, we dine out often enough to keep the restaurant industry growing quickly in our state.
The increasing growth has a huge impact on restaurant employers.  The U.S. restaurant industry currently employs over 12 million people nationwide, a number that is expected to increase to 14.8 million in ten years.  Currently in Utah there is an estimated 98,000 restaurant and food service employees working in any of the over 4,000 eating and drinking establishments in our state.  Based on research from the NRA, the people employed in the restaurant and foodservice industry make up 8% of the total employment in Utah.  Significantly, the 98,000 figure is estimated to increase an enormous 23.1% by 2017, when an estimated 121,600 people are predicted to work in the industry.
It is apparent from all of these figures that numerous employees are needed, and will continue to be needed, by restaurant employers to keep food production and supply on par with the high demand.  Notably, the restaurant industry is extremely labor intensive with about 40% of the work labeled unskilled labor.  Furthermore, there is roughly a 70% turnover in the industry, so restaurants are frequently seeking new employees.
As a result of the huge demand for employees, the high turnover rate and the unskilled nature of some of the work, the restaurant industry has become a well-suited trade for many immigrant guest workers to find employment.  For example, Mrs. Sine stated that the percentage of Hispanic workers in the restaurant industry has grown from 11% or 12% three of four years ago to 23% today.  However, as is the case with agri-business, the construction industry and the various other sectors in the economy that we have described in this series, literally countless numbers of the immigrants currently employed in the restaurant industry are not legally authorized to work in the United States.  And while much of the condemnation for the restaurant industry’s reliance on illegal immigrants is aimed at the restaurant industry itself, much of the evidence shows that the true blame for this dilemma lies with the federal government because of their continued failure to fix our nation’s broken guest worker policy.
Restaurants cannot verify legal status of workers without federal cooperation
For instance, in a stunning observation, Mrs. Sine noted that the fraudulent documents brought in by “undocumented workers” are so well forged that it is terribly difficult to decipher what is real and what is not.  Furthermore, illegal immigrants employed in the restaurant industry are fully aware that they have between six and nine months to work at a particular restaurant before officials report back to the restaurant employer about their false documentation.  Thus, by the time the federal bureaucrats with the Social Security Administration inform a certain restaurant that they must release an employee because their documentation failed, that unauthorized employee had already left that establishment months ago and is most likely working elsewhere.   Mrs. Sine persisted in her critique of the current immigration system by asking: “that Social Security Number [the stolen number that the administration took over six months to report] is bound to pop up somewhere else again soon, why not follow up right then?  Why is it our fault that the government takes so long to let us [the restaurant employers] know that our employee’s documentation is fraudulent?”
A second place that the federal government has failed is by forcing restaurant employers in to a no-win situation when it comes to hiring practices.  Restaurant employers want to follow the law in their hiring practices for one major reason:  most eating establishments do not have the money to pay the fines that accompany knowingly hiring individuals unauthorized to work in this country.  The dilemma that arises, however, is that no restaurant employers have the time or the right to test every questionable applicant that submits an application.  As explained several times in this series, the threat of discrimination charges are a very real concern for Utah employers, including those in the restaurant industry.  Moreover, restaurant owners just do not have the time –among their various other responsibilities- to wait weeks for a confirmation of an applicant’s documentation when there is a need for that employee at that very moment.  As avowed by Mrs. Sine, “We hang up the ‘now hiring signs’ and hire the individual willing to take the job.  That is our responsibility.  But it is the federal government’s responsibility to enable us to verify a person’s legal status.  We cannot accomplish this alone.  We are not miracle workers.”
The American restaurant industry has become a critical part of our nation’s economy due to its sheer size and the large numbers of people in employs.  As such, the industry needs legal immigrant employees, and yet, as has repeatedly been the case with other industries, the federal government balks at its responsibility to equip this important industry with an acceptable guest worker policy that is so desperately essential.  We again call for support in demanding that the federal government fulfill its responsibility in repairing the current guest worker program so that American employers – such as those in the restaurant industry – can find the workers they need in sufficient numbers, and in a way that is humane and legal.