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If you’re a close observer of the food world, you might already know the National Restaurant Association (a trade group that is often called “the other NRA”) or that the organization is criticized by labor advocates for its efforts to maintain the industry standard of low pay. Now the New York Times’ Talmon Joseph Smith and David A. Fahrenthold have published a bombshell report about how the NRA uses fees from mandatory food-safety courses to fundraise this lobbying. Here is what you need to know.

Why are restaurant workers paying the National Restaurant Association for food training at all?
The NRA owns a company called ServSafe, which offers online food-safety courses for $15. Many, though not all, workers end up paying for the class themselves. Since 2010, according to the Times, 3.6 million workers have used ServSafe to the tune of $25 million in revenue — money that has gone to the NRA’s lobbying efforts. Tax filings show that the NRA’s spending grew as revenues from training programs increased.

The gist is that the NRA takes the money paid by restaurant workers and uses it to spend on lobbying efforts on behalf of restaurant management?

Do workers know the NRA owns ServSafe?
Not always. The reporters even spoke to some restaurant owners who weren’t wise to this connection. One owner in Georgia described it as “very wrong.” (Personally speaking, I did not think at all about who was providing the course I took when I got my food-handler’s license. It was just a necessary task to get out of the way.) Word is getting out, though. Some workers, like Mysheka Ronquillo (a line cook at a Carl’s Jr. and private-school cafeteria in California), found themselves in the awkward position of organizing for labor while taking classes funding efforts to undermine that work. Lawyer and labor activist Saru Jayaraman told the Times that her organization, One Fair Wage, has been telling workers “to use any possible alternatives.”

Does the company disclose where the money is going?
As the Times notes, there’s only the vaguest of indications. According to its website, ServSafe “reinvests proceeds from programs back into the industry.” The Times describes this as “an arrangement with few parallels in Washington” — one in which workers are paying for lobbying to benefit management.

Are there alternatives?
Yes, but there might as well not be. Speaking with the Times, Nick Eastwood, who runs a competing course provider called Always Food Safe, described ServSafe as “the Kleenex” of food-safety training. Other restaurateurs said they didn’t even know if other companies existed.

How did this happen?
A former chairman of the NRA’s board, Burton “Skip” Sack, told the Times that the association started thinking about buying ServSafe after Congress raised the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour in 2009. After taking control of ServSafe in 2007, restaurant associations affiliated with the NRA lobbied their governments in California, Illinois, and Texas to require food-safety training for a broader range of workers. Previously, only managers had been required to have this training, but changes to these states’ laws meant that cooks, waiters, bartenders, and bussers would need to as well. (Responding to questions from the Times, the state associations claimed that this was about reducing foodborne illness.) In short, changes to these state laws provided the NRA with a guaranteed supply of customers and more money to fund its efforts to keep the minimum wage low.

Why is this allowed?
The NRA is a business league, the Times notes, so it is able to run a for-profit business that’s in the interest of the industry. Recently, the NRA helped to kill a bill that would have increased the national minimum wage to $15 over the next five years. The NRA’s contributions to keeping minimum wage low and maintaining a tipped minimum wage of $2.13 since 1991 have meant that the actual earnings of restaurant workers have decreased significantly with inflation in the past three decades. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $7.25 in December 2022 has the same purchasing power as $5.28 in December 2009. In December 2022, the tipped minimum wage of $2.13 has the same purchasing power as 99 cents did in December 1991.