As one of the largest employing industries in the U.S., the restaurant industry currently provides jobs for 14.7 million people across the country, and the need for restaurant workers shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. In fact, analysts predict an additional 1.6 million jobs will be created over the next decade.
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Still, this workforce is headed for a significant shift. Although the restaurant industry already has a higher concentration of foreign-born workers than any other sector in the country (more than 23 percent of individuals employed at restaurants are foreign-born, versus 18.5 percent for the overall economy, according to QSR Magazine), that number will continue to grow astronomically, as many of these new jobs will be filled by foreign-born employees and their immigrant children. The skills gap that currently exists for many of these workers who are not proficient in English will also grow, especially in cities such as Miami and Orlando, which are expected to receive an influx of workers coming from the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico looking to build new lives and find work following the aftermath of recent hurricanes. Now, more than ever, it is critical that the industry take action to give its workforce the tools and resources it needs to communicate effectively.
Dominating nearly every part of retail food service, foreign-born workers hold jobs as cooks, waiters, bussers, dishwashers, kitchen staff, food prep staff, frontline food workers, service and maintenance workers, and hosts. In fact, the National Restaurant Association found that “a full 43 percent of restaurant chefs are foreign-born.”
While it is undeniable that these workers are a vital part of the food service industry, it cannot be ignored that many of them possess limited proficiency in English, referred to as LEP, a staggering factor that can negatively impact profits of food service restaurants and the professional confidence of the employee. Lacking basic English communication skills, LEP workers often unknowingly put themselves, fellow food service workers, and customers at risk.
For example, a Massachusetts family is suing Panera Bread after their 6-year-old daughter suffered a violent reaction and had to be hospitalized after eating a grilled cheese sandwich containing peanut butter—despite warnings from the parents about their child’s peanut allergy when they had placed the order. According to the Boston Globe, the manager of the Panera Bread franchise outlet “blamed the incident on a ‘language’ issue…conceivably [by] an employee with limited English.” Less than one month later, a different family experienced a similar incident at another Panera Bread location.
These incidents show firsthand how detrimental miscommunication within the food service industry can be, even leading to potentially life-threatening mishaps. While usual tactics such as food allergen training are often a part of food safety training, what’s intended to be a clear lesson on handling food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities isn’t so clear when it gets lost in translation. The truth is that instances similar to the ones that occurred at Panera Bread are highly likely to occur time and time again when language training is left out of the equation.
The good news is that employers can take proactive action to help prevent these mistakes and help their teams grow and develop at the same time.
An Essential Element
Implementing a language training program has become a common practice with many food service businesses and should be implemented as an integral part of food safety training. Treating it as an important building block within the foundation is critical, because without it, communication can have crippling effects.
As a complex industry made up of many moving parts, language barriers pose a large safety problem for food service managers and owners in particular, including the following.