How to Save the Restaurant Workforce From Being Casualties of The Covid-19 Crisis

In an interview, One Fair Wage President Saru Jayaraman explains that the post-Covid future offers two possible directions for restaurant workers—dignity or poverty.

Michelle Chen June 1, 2020

We talked to Jayaraman about how the pandemic could change restaurant work over the long term. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

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. 

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.

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. 

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.
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