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As the Covid-19 pandemic has swept through cities across the country, restaurants have been forced to shut down indefinitely — or slashed their workforces and reduced their operations to threadbare delivery and take-out only services.
Saru Jayaraman, President of One Fair Wage, an advocacy group for restaurant workers and other tipped service employees (including Uber and Doordash drivers, manicurists and car wash workers) hopes the economic turmoil might lead to a much-needed reset for the industry.
One Fair Wage, which grew out of the national labor advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, envisions a sustainable post-pandemic business model. It starts with dismantling the subminimum wage system, which allows employers to calculate the minimum wage for tipped workers at just a fraction of the normal minimum, as little as $2.13 per hour, leading to rampant wage theft. And with millions of households grappling with food insecurity, One Fair Wage is also piloting the “High Road Kitchens” project — a combination of mutual aid and community-based entrepreneurship, which offers a living wage to all workers and currently works with restaurants in California to feed low-wage workers in their local communities.
In These Times talked to Jayaraman about how the pandemic could change restaurant work over the long term. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MC: How does the pandemic underscore the issues that One Fair Wage has been advocating around for years?
The pandemic put our work on speed because it literally just made our point for us: it showed America why no one should ever have been making less than a minimum wage to begin with. After all, remember that the minimum wage in the United States emerged from the last Great Depression, and at that time tipped workers were excluded [from unemployment benefits and federal safety net programs meant for industrial workers]. Incarcerated workers, gig workers, people with disabilities were excluded. That was supposed to be the moment when people [decided] going forward, no one is going to get less than this minimum. But it wasn’t true for these workers. So with the pandemic, more than 10 million service sector workers have lost their jobs and are having real problems accessing unemployment insurance or are getting unemployment insurance [based] on a total miscalculation of their income, because of the messiness of living off of tips. We’re hearing this from a lot of women who are single mothers. They’re going to apply for unemployment and the state unemployment insurance [office] is telling them [their tipped income] is too low to meet the minimum state threshold to qualify for unemployment insurance.
So tipped workers in America are up against two systems that come from the Great Depression and were built against them. One is the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers, which never worked and has been laid bare [by the pandemic] as a completely untenable situation. And two is unemployment. Now that states are reopening and restaurant workers are being forced to go back to work, not only are tipped workers facing the difficult choice between their livelihood and their life. On top of that, we’re facing a world in which tips have gone way down. People tip delivery and takeout [workers] maybe 10% of what they tip typically in a sit-down restaurant. So, all of that has made workers very angry, and we are organizing them and building up towards some really big direct action that’s coming up.
And it’s made employers, at least many independent restaurant owners, open their eyes. We’ve worked with Gov. Newsom to launch a program called High Road Kitchen in California that would provide cash grants to restaurants that commit to higher wage and greater equity going forward. And they take the money now and rehire workers and provide free meals to the community, and paid meals to anyone who can afford to pay for it. You would think all restaurant owners would be saying “don’t raise wages right now, we’re struggling.” But on the contrary, many restaurant owners, at least independent restaurant owners — the chains are not going to move on this — are saying “you know, this is precisely the time to raise wages. This is precisely the time to make changes because we’re all reinventing what restaurants are going to look. We’re having to redo our business models from scratch, we may as well incorporate something that is sustainable for our people, because it’s been made very clear that this sub-minimum wage never worked.”
My point is that all of those workers should get a full minimum wage from their employer in addition to safety protocols, because the tips are going to be so much less reliable going forward. They were never reliable to begin with. But they’re going to be even more insecure and unreliable.
MC: Overall what do you think the restaurant industry is going to look like, given that there are places that just aren’t going to be able to reopen. Do you think there might be more consolidation in the industry?
This is why we’re really pushing for solutions like High Road Kitchens, which is both about saving small businesses and bringing the industry in the right direction and hiring workers and feeding people all at the same time.
What I’m thinking about is a program that gets small businesses cash and commits them to higher wages — and helps them change their business models, and then also allows them to do feeding programs and rehire workers. And so it’s a multi-win, and it’s based on the philosophy and idea that if we’re going to be providing relief, let’s shape relief in a way that shapes the future. That’s what we should be doing as a country. If we know that the pandemic has laid bare inequities, then rather than providing blanket relief, especially to these big chains, that relief needs to be contingent on commitments to change.
We have two choices: Either we can go toward a much more horrific future where we force people to go back to work at two dollars an hour and there’s no tips, so they continue at basically Great Depression-era levels of poverty and starvation, plus they’re already in debt due to the last couple of months of not having income. That’s the horrific future. And then I think that the real future we need to fight for is one where we don’t go back until we get One Fair Wage and PPE and safety protocols. I don’t think there’s an in-between.
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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.