Growing numbers of American restaurant workers—many of whom forfeited safety and security to keep their jobs amid the pandemic—are turning to unions.

The perks and pitfalls of restaurant work have long hung in a delicate balance. Employees weighed gainful, flexible work against the potential for abuse—wage theft, racism and sexual harassment. Then when COVID-19 hit, many cash-strapped employers sidelined safety.

Tipped workers, always vulnerable to wage theft, have traditionally labored under uncertainty.

(Graphic/Suzannah Cavanaugh)

Service workers seeking union protections are demanding safeguards white- and blue-collar employees wouldn’t work without—transparent pay structures, adherence to the legal minimum wage, paid sick leave, regular breaks and a work culture that checks racism, sexism and verbal abuse.

Here is a detailed look at how workers in California, Pennsylvania and Oregon have succeeded and failed in advocating for themselves and their colleagues, raising awareness about the industry’s longtime labor practices.