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A couple of weeks ago, I was telling you about Don Rockwell‘s fledgling campaign to start an independent restaurant association that would represent workers in the hospitality industry, right down to providing them health care. Little did I know that there already was an organization in town trying to do exactly that.

A few days after the article was published, I received an e-mail from Nikki Lewis, the co-coordinator for the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Washington, D.C., one of seven affiliates tied to a national group dedicated to helping hospitality workers in a number of ways. She wanted to get in touch with Rockwell about a potential collaboration.

“ROC-DC is also frustrated with the NRA and RAMW. We led the first counter-lobby day against them this past April. We also infiltrated their national convention to get a better understanding of their agenda,” wrote Lewis, referring to the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington and the National Restaurant Association.

“ROC is a tiny nonprofit with small capacity compared to the organized wealth and power of the NRA,” Lewis added. “They’re the 10th most powerful lobbying group in the nation. They clearly have way more bargaining power with insurance companies than us. Yet we are able to do it already.”

ROC’s health plan just got off the ground a little more than a month ago and, as such, has only a handful of workers enrolled, Lewis told me over the phone last week. It’s a limited plan, she admits; benefits max out at $5,000 annually. Members pay $140 a month for the plan, with a $100 deductible.

“It’s by no means a comprehensive plan,” Lewis tells me. “If you get hit by a bus, it’s not for you.”

But it’s a start and, according to a recent study conducted by the national Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, it’s much needed. In a September report drawn from more than 4,300 surveys of restaurant workers, ROC found:

  • 87.7% [of restaurant workers] reported not receiving paid sick days. More than 63% of all restaurant workers reported cooking and serving food while sick, thus impacting consumers’ health.
  • Almost 90% of all workers surveyed reported not receiving health insurance through their employer. Workers without health insurance were three times as likely to visit the emergency room without being able to pay as their counterparts with health insurance.

ROC-United certainly has a daunting task ahead. The organization represents about 6,000 workers out of the estimated 13 million restaurant employees nationwide. Locally the numbers are significantly smaller: about 240 restaurant workers are members of the D.C. chapter of ROC. But the meaningful news here is that ROC and its modest health plan are open to undocumented workers, who often toil behind the scenes at restaurants.

“We are also reaching out to Latino media outlets because our plan doesn’t discriminate based on documentation status,” Lewis wrote me.”[O]ftentimes that is a huge barrier to many of the workers in our industry.”

The local ROC chapter is also working with a handful of restaurants to try to expand D.C.’s Accrued Sick and Safe Leave Act of 2008 to cover tipped employees, which it currently doesn’t. Several restaurants have expressed an interest in expanding (or already have expanded) the benefits even without a change in law, Lewis says; they include Teaism, Busboys & Poets, and Sticky Rice.

In the meantime, Rockwell and ROC are now aware of each other. They will explore possible collaborations for the benefit of those workers who feed us and serve us daily at D.C. restaurants.