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The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity reports that the state’s unemployment rate for the month of September dipped slightly to 10.6 percent, still well above the 9.1 percent national rate. Florida saw job growth in the accommodation and food service sector, which workers say features low pay and unhealthy working conditions.

A report on the “State of Working Florida 2011″ recently issued by the Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy (aka RISEP) at Florida International University indicates job growth has been concentrated in “lower wage industries,” including accommodation and food services. Today’s Department of Economic Opportunity report (.pdf) shows that the accommodation and food service industries added 7,500 jobs over the last month.

Jeremy and Jessica — who asked that their last names not be used — were born in the U.S., have three children, live in Miami and work in the restaurant industry. She works part time and he has a full-time job. Their joint earnings amount to about $2,400 a month.

“We don’t make enough to live; we’re barely getting by,” Jessica says, adding she is confident she’ll soon get 35 hours of work a week.

Jessica, who is in her mid-20s, tells The Florida Independent she has worked in restaurants for over 10 years. She has always worked in the “front of the house.” “Pretty much, I go to work, come home — that’s my routine,” Jessica says.

She works Monday through Friday and might serve 60 to 70 people a day, is paid $8 an hour plus about $40 a week in tips. The current wage for Florida tipped workers is $4.29 an hour. Florida (.pdf) announced this week that employers must pay tipped workers a direct hourly wage of $4.65 as of Jan. 1, 2012.

The RISEP report adds that Florida, “is still missing 981,000 jobs”:

  • The number of long-term unemployed continued to rise, going from 37 percent of unemployed workers in 2009 to 49.5 percent in 2010.
  • The “underemployment” rate, which includes unemployed workers and those working part time involuntarily, was almost 20 percent of the labor force in 2010, which was an increase from 2009.
  • In 2010 33 percent of those who worked part time did so involuntarily, an increase of 1.9 percentage points from 2009. The U.S. involuntary part-time employment rate was 25 percent in 2010.
  • Florida’s median wage remained 19 cents below the U.S. median in 2010, but Florida actually experienced a 2 percent increase in the real median wage since 2009, whereas the U.S. experienced a 1.3 percent decrease.
  • From 2009 to 2010, wages for the bottom 20 percent of earners dropped, taking them slightly below their average wage for 2007, while wages for middle and top earners have increased, putting these groups ahead over the recession.
  • Since 1979 the wages of the bottom 20 percent have grown by almost 14 percent, while the wages of the top earners have grown by 31 percent.
  • Wages for African-American and Hispanic workers both declined from 2009 to 2010, the second year in a row for African-Americans, who are also the only group to show a decrease over the recession.

Jeremy works as a line cook, has over 10 years of experience in the food service industry and makes $12 an hour. He tells the Independent that he “worked in a place where they made up their own wages. It was all based on the tips we made.” He says that most of the places he’s worked at “have given [him] a fair rate.”

He says wage theft “is practiced, but in my personal experience I’ve been vocal.” “The people who aren’t vocal, that don’t stay on top of these things, they see it happen to them,” Jeremy says.

According to Jeremy, problems include working conditions and safety even though most places he’s worked at have met state requirements. He still thinks things could improve. “There are 12 workers in the kitchen, but less people is common. If the other cook doesn’t come I have to work two stations,” so there is higher risk of mistakes and accidents.

“Working with six fryers on, two ovens, two boilers with pots, I think they could do more to ventilate kitchens more. There are times I’ve had to step outside cause I’m dizzy from the heat,” Jeremy says. “You leave exhausted at the end of the day.” He says the heat has an impact on workers’ health, but little or nothing is done. At his current job there are fans in the kitchen, and that is about the best he’s seen.

Jeremy explains, “We can’t drink from the same water the customers drink. I don’t know the reason, but I’ve heard rumors that the ice is too expensive to make.”

He also explains that undocumented workers are common in all the places he has worked. He has seen workers take verbal abuse and work for or less than the minimum wage despite their experience because they fear losing their jobs or being handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Jessica and Jeremy agree restaurant workers need a better pay rate, job security and safer working conditions.

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