Seems like you can’t sit down at your local greasy spoon these days without hearing the words “sustainable,” “local,” or “organic.” (Oh, and let’s not forget “fair trade,” “ethically sourced,” and “farm-to-table.”)

But is that all there is to a sustainable restaurant? Or should the whole sustainability thing extend beyond food?

Well, at BizEnergy we emphasize energy efficiency as a key element of sustainability. And this week, the US-based Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United), a new advocacy group, added staffing to the sustainability mix.

ROC-United just released a report that ranks the worst (and best) places for US restaurant staffers to work—and the results are pretty dismal.

At the heart of the report is the disparity between the US tipped and the standard minimum wage: $2.13 vs. $7.25. Although employers are legally required to make up the difference where tips fall short, this doesn’t always happen—leaving more than half of all restaurant workers earning less than the threshold of the US poverty line.

Add to this the fact that few restaurant workers get paid sick days (which is a public health problem as well as an employment issue), have little opportunity for advancement, and often don’t get breaks, many restaurants have a work environment that’s not only unsustainable, but downright harmful.

While consumers pride themselves on knowing the first names of the people who grew their heirloom tomatoes, sustainable staffing remains shamefully in the dark. The problem is elegantly summarized in this column by New York Times columnist Mark Bittman.

It bears pointing out that the wage disparity isn’t nearly as drastic in Canada. While the wage for liquor servers in all provinces is lower than minimum wage, it tends to be over 80% of the provincial minimum wage, unlike in the US, where the tipped minimum wage of $2.13—which hasn’t changed since 1991—is about 30% of the federal minimum wage of $7.25. In Canada, as in the US, employers have to make up any shortfall between a server’s hourly wage and the provincial minimum.

That’s not to say all employers follow the rules. That’s not to say that restaurant workers shouldn’t get paid sick days, and breaks, and a living wage.

This isn’t easy with a restaurant’s razor-thin profit margins. Making ends meet can be admittedly tough for independent eateries—but most of the worst restaurants on ROC-United’s lists are large national chains.

It’s just a matter of time.

Under pressure from patrons, balancing profitability with sustainability is something restaurateurs are getting used to from a food perspective—and, as awareness is raised about restaurant staffers’ working conditions, it won’t be long before consumers start demanding that staffing become part of the sustainability mix.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Image credit: ralph and jenny