February 10, 2023

David Fahrenthold Pulitzer Prize-Winning Reporter for The New York Times on “How Restaurant Workers Pay for Lobbying to Keep Their Wages Low”

Dana Bernardino

1Huddle Podcast Episode #94

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with David Fahrenthold, a New York Times Journalist who wrote the article “How Restaurant Workers Help Pay for Lobbying to Keep Their Wages Low,” which investigates the funds workers pay for safety classes were actually used against them.

On the first episode of Bring It In season four, David sat down with Sam and discussed the effectiveness of ServSafe training, what the National Restaurant Association used funds for, and the effect the article had on readers.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.


Below are some of the insights Fahrenthold shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “If I was a waiter at the same restaurant right now in 2023, I would still get paid $2.13 an hour, the same I was paid in 1996.”
  • “One in three restaurant workers left the industry and are never coming back.”
  • “Nearly 90% of workforce training in America goes towards cover-your-ass stuff.”

Sam: To jump right in, David, you mind giving it a quick background on yourself? 

David: Sure. So I’m a reporter for the New York Times. I’ve been here for about a year. I was before that at the Washington Post for 20 years as a reporter. I covered all kinds of different things from the DC police to the environment to the last few years covered Donald Trump. I wrote about his giving to charity and then about his business while he was president.

And relevant to this conversation, my first job ever was as a waiter at Guadalajara Mexican Grille in Houston, Texas. So that was my first start in the working world. So this story had a particular residence for me. 

Sam: So David, the other day I read an article, it blew up our Slack and a bunch of people sent me text messages and said how restaurant workers help pay for lobbying to keep their wages low. How did you first become interested in this topic? 

David: So I write about nonprofits. That’s my gig at the Times. And somebody that I knew from covering actually a different subject, from covering Trump of all people, somebody that I knew reached out to me and said that they were in the restaurant business. And this person said, ‘look, I know you cover nonprofits. Here’s something that’s going on with the National Restaurant Association that I think people don’t know.’

Workers, people who are just trying to sort of get by in life, take this class and end up funding this massive organization that lobbies against their interests. I had never heard of the National Restaurants Association or ServSafe, it didn’t exist or it wasn’t a big deal in Texas when I was a waiter.

But we got to work on it because one of the things we’re really interested in in this beat is seeing how nonprofits use the shield of a nonprofit to wield power, to wield influence in Washington, and this to me seemed like a classic case of that. 

Sam: What surprised you most as you really dug in?

David: Well, this was a hard story to write because the people, so much of the information about how this works is kept at the National Restaurant Association. Many people, even who are members of the National Restaurant Association, don’t know about the servsafe or how it works or what it funds. So we had a hard time just finding people who could describe it for us.

We called, the National Restaurant Association Board has like 80 plus members, we called dozens of them. We called board members going back in time and really had a hard time getting anybody to get on the phone and give us details. The way we broke through though, was we found public facing. So the thing we wanted to know was how many workers have taken this test, have taken this class, and how much money has gone from the pockets of workers into the pockets of the National Restaurant Association? And the Restaurant Association would not tell us, wouldn’t give us any sort of sense of even scale. So then we found a public facing database that they maintained, basically showing all the people who’ve gotten this training set up so that if you or I ran a restaurant, we wanted to run one of our new employees through it to see if they really had the certification they said, we found that that public facing database ran the 2000 most popular last names in America through it, scraped those results and got a number in the millions. And so we came back to the National Restaurant Association, said, ‘Hey look, we have a number, we know about how big this is and we’re gonna use that number,’ and that’s when they sort of broke down and gave us the actual number that we were able to use in the story.

Sam: It feels like this is a common practice across most trade associations. They have some type of university education certification arm in the name of certifying and developing the workforce of tomorrow. They offer all, they almost control a lot of this programming and don’t let maybe other organizations or partners in for obviously what it seems like is 25 million in revenue to the lobby arm since 2010. I guess I understand why. 

David: Yeah. There are a lot of groups out there that do certification for their members. I mean, a lot of medical groups do this. They offer continuing education and then they offer certification. The thing that’s a little bit different in this case is that in those situations, the people who are getting the training and paying for the training are members of the organization, right. The doctors who are in the American Ophthalmic Association, for instance, get the training, the money they’re paying for that training at least serves their interest. They’re the ones who benefit from the lobbying it funds. 

In this case, it was different because so much of this funding came from a, from people who were not the beneficiaries of this lobbying, who were sort of, in some cases, on the opposite side, and b, came from people who didn’t know that’s what it was, and were actually acting under a state mandate, were compelled by the state to take some kind of training that led them to the servsafe. 

Sam: I think the part of the piece that hit me really hard immediately and I kept coming back to was the conversations you had with some of the workers and my Manshika Ronkili and her reaction to it. Talk to me about that, not just her reaction, but others’ reactions. What were the themes that you kept hearing from workers as you dug? 

David: I was really surprised given how long this has been going on and how common ServSafe is. How many people have to take it? Millions and millions. How little known it is that the money you pay to servsafe goes to lobbying and lobbying for this purpose. I mean, to the point that we talked to people at One Fair Wage, which is one of the advocacy groups that’s calling for higher wages for service workers, sort of the sworn enemy of the National Restaurant Association, and they paid for ServSafe at one point. Even they didn’t know at the beginning that’s what ServSafe was. So even people like Manshika Ronkili that you quoted, you mentioned she’s someone who’s a cook at a Carl’s Jr in California that we talked to. She is active in the labor movement. She’s somebody who actually not just sort of supports the effort to raise wages for service workers, but is like a volunteer working on that. Even she didn’t know that when she paid to servsafe, she was paying the other side. 

And we had also talked to people who were restaurant owners who didn’t know that. So I was amazed given how much money and time that has passed, and how much money has passed through the system. Just how people understood how the system worked.

Sam: Did you take it? 

David: When I was a waiter in Texas, we had to take alcohol training, which I think we took from the state. But no, I was a waiter so long ago that this was not mandated in Texas. But the funny thing was, I was a waiter in 1996 when I was in high school, waiters get this tip credit. So they get a little salary from the restaurant and the rest is supposed to be made up of tips. So when I was a waiter in 1996, my salary was $2 and 13 cents an hour. And I would always tell people, ‘man, you would not believe how little they paid us,’ you know, how much we had to make up in tips.

And then I learned in the process of reporting this story, that this restaurant association has been so successful at defending that tip credit system that’s still the wage. If I was a waiter at the same restaurant right now in 2023, I would still get paid two 13 an hour and have to make up the rest with tips.

Sam: It’s wild. It’s wild. It’s not a fun training. I’ll tell you this cause I’ve seen it and it’s interesting, these compliance and safety trainings. I think the Department of Labor reports that nearly 81% of workforce training in America today is, we’ll call it skill or compliance training, safety related, legal in nature. And I just wonder about the effects on the worker. You can’t feel like you come out of this and you’re any more, I mean, some of the stuff in servsafe seems so fundamental and basic that I don’t feel like that’s something that workers gotta come out of and feel really empowered and excited about on top of the fact of hearing that they have to pay for it, and on top of the fact that paying for it is something that is now work is working against. 

David: Yeah, so as part of the reporting of this story, I took the servsafe training for California. I took it in Utah and a few other places. It’s basically the same everywhere, and you’re right about two things. It is very basic. I mean, maybe there’s somebody out there who needs to be told, ‘wash your hands after you go to the bathroom. Don’t come to work if you’ve been vomiting. Tell your manager if you have diarrhea.’ Maybe somebody needs to be told that, but I would think the vast majority of service workers would watch this and go, duh, of course. I know not to serve moldy strawberries. I know not to drag garbage across the cutting board. These are things that probably they already know. 

So one of the things I asked was, to your point, it seemed so simple. I thought, well, maybe somebody’s done some research out there to say that, ‘look, we’ve looked at servsafe and we know that even though it sounds simple, it makes a difference.’ And the Restaurant Association couldn’t point to any research at all that showed the effectiveness of servsafe food handler training, either at all, or servsafe versus other brands of food handler training. And when you look at the research in general, what it showed is that in general, the sort of classroom or instructional model of teaching food safety, like watching a video of it tells people to wash their hands for 20 seconds, is so much less effective than a thing like a clock at the at the hand washing station.

Some sort of reminder in front of you that makes it easy to remember or shows you how long 20 seconds is. Things like that, that are not instructional, but like sort of in the moment remind you of what to do, that may be a much better model to actually make workers safer.

Sam: Were there any other anecdotes or stories, or if you had a little bit more space in the piece would’ve made it in, but you kind of left on the floor. Was there anything that if you had a little bit more space that you would fit in? 

David: Well this is a topic where there’s so much legal complexity. I think that’s the thing that we would’ve talked about a little bit more is, how are they allowed to do this? And the IRS would be the enforcing mechanism here. And the IRS has been gutted. They’re very, especially a nonprofit, issues like this, they’re very risk averse. They don’t take a lot of enforcement actions. But it seems like the rules around this kind of group of a business league are broad enough that even though it sounds like, wow, they’re running a business under the shield of a nonprofit, that what they’re doing probably would pass muster with the IRS. So we had a little more sort of description of the ins and outs of that, but cut it just to say it appears as odd as it sounds, it appears legal. 

Sam: What do you hope to happen? I mean, as a journalist, highly respected and done a lot on a lot of fronts over the years. When you write a piece like this, it takes a lot of courage. I talk to a lot of people in the restaurant industry who say, oh, we kind of knew that, but now that we read this article, you put it in such a way that it was like, why didn’t these this get connected this way earlier? I just wonder, what do you hope to happen after a piece like this? What change do you hope takes place?

David: Well, you can’t hope for a particular change just because yeah, you don’t wanna be rooting for an outcome and you probably will be disappointed. But the thing that I was really pleased by was, we have metrics of the times, not just how many people read a story, but we have a way where people can share and gift the story. Basically, if you’re a subscriber, but you know your friend is not, you can gift them the story so they can read it without paying for a subscription. And the numbers of those that this story was shared and gifted in really large numbers, which made me think, okay, it’s reaching people who are not regular Times readers. It’s reaching people who are service workers that this affects their life. So I was glad to see that. It felt like it got to the people to whom this was a close issue. It got to people to whom this mattered in their life. 

Sam: The comment section was pretty interesting. I don’t stay away from the comment section, but there was a lot of stuff. Were there any reactions you received that stand out that are memorable? 

David: Most people said what people said in the story, like, oh my God, I had no idea. And I think there has been an effort by the folks from One Fair Wage, the folks in favor of raising the wage for workers. They are trying to, I think, use this story to try to either start their own business that will fund them, or to try to get people in California and Texas and other places that mandate this training to take it away. I don’t know if that’s gonna work or not, but that’s sort of the next beat of this story, is to see whether those efforts to change the legal structure that funnels so many people to ServSafe, whether those efforts will succeed.

Sam: David, you’ve been gracious with your time. My last question and so much of what we talk about on the podcast is about the future of work. So I have to ask you, what is your hope for the future of work?

David: That’s a really great question. My hope is that we find a model so we don’t lose the benefits of remote work that we got during the pandemic. I mean, there’s so many great things about working in the office, especially in an office like mine in the newsroom, where it’s very open and you can’t replace that. And I go back to the office to get that. But I hope we find a way to give people the flexibility to work from home and to sort of like not lose the good things that came out of a shift in the pandemic, even as we all go back.

Sam: David, thank you for taking time. 

David: Thank you.

Topics Discussed: Hourly Workers, Leadership, Automation, Talent Development

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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