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Taking a mask off for a tip

As the restaurant industry crumbled under the pandemic impact, tips disappeared, sales tanked, while harassment and sexual harassment – already the highest of any industry -spiked. Thousands of female workers reported instances like this.

“I’m regularly asked, take off your mask so I can see how cute you are before I decide how much to tip you.”

14 million workers pre-pandemic had had enough of this kind of behavior for very little tips and very low wages. Millions quit.

The press called the attrition “the Great Resignation,” said Saru Jayaraman, the co-founder and president of One Fair Wage.“But our members say it’s not a great resignation. It’s a great revolution.”

“1.2 million workers have left the restaurant industry and 60% of workers who remain say they are leaving. 80% say the only thing that would make them stay or come back is a full livable wage with tips on top,” says Jayaraman. She was speaking at an April 7th EMS briefing on how grassroots organizations can drive change. Can real change happen at the grassroots despite growing political polarization, legislative gridlock economic uncertainty in the public sphere?

At One Fair Wage, Saru Jayaraman is leading the charge against poverty wages and poor working conditions that drove millions of restaurant workers to quit in the wake of the pandemic.

The history behind the revolt

Though the restaurant industry has been one of the largest and fastest-growing private sector employers in California and the United States, for decades, it’s been the absolute lowest paying employer for generations, dating back to emancipation. That’s when the subminimum wage for tipped workers was created.

“At emancipation,” said Jayaraman, “the restaurant industry wanted the ability to hire newly freed slaves, not pay them anything and have them live exclusively on this new thing that had just come from Europe at the time called tipping.”

They formed the National Restaurant Association (NRA) which for 100 years has fought to keep wages as low as possible in most states to ensure a subminimum wage for tipped workers.

A grassroots leader

Saru Jayaraman is Director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and a recipient of the James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award. The award honors community leaders for advancing solutions to critical issues that affect millions of people in California, and nationwide.

After 9/11, Jayaraman started an initiative to support displaced workers and families of the victims from the World Trade Center restaurant. “On that morning, 73 workers died, and 250 workers lost their jobs,” she said.

Jayaraman co-founded the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), which grew into a national movement of restaurant workers, employers, and consumers. She then launched One Fair Wage as a national campaign to end all subminimum wages in the United States.

The picture shows a smiling woman
Saru Jayaraman, President, One Fair Wage

No More Poverty Wages

Today One Fair Wage is a national organization of 300,000 restaurant and service workers across the country and in all 50 states, focused on fighting for increased wages and improved working conditions in the restaurant industry. Many restaurants are small businesses run by immigrants and people of color, while a majority of restaurant workers tend to be immigrants, overwhelmingly women, and disproportionately women of color.

They support raising wages and increasing the quality of jobs in the restaurant industry as well as for all service workers. That includes workers at nail and hair salons, carwashes, wheelchair assistants in airports,  and gig workers at service apps like DoorDash or Instacart.

“That’s anybody who’s tipped,” says Jayaraman, and who is receiving a subminimum wage.

One reason why membership in her organization has grown during the pandemic, says Jayaraman, is because, “low-wage workers across the economy and particularly in the restaurant industry, are for the first time refusing to work for these poverty wages.”

How the other NRA works

For many decades the NRA ran a scheme to scam low-wage workers by charging them for food safety training. They then used that money to lobby against wage increases for those same workers without the workers knowing it. The NRA’s lobbying power kept wages suppressed for a very long time both in the restaurant industry and in the minimum wage in general, across the country.

The NRA got states like California and Illinois to pass bills requiring every worker in the state to take food safety training and pay for it. But they happened to own a cash cow – the food safety training company called ServSafe, which brings in revenues of about $80 million a year.

“California has been providing the restaurant association with millions of dollars from low-wage workers for lobbying purposes,” added Jayaraman “It has doubled their lobbying budget, and they use those dollars they get from workers paying for ServSafe for food safety training, to lobby against those same workers wage increases.”

Curtailing the cash cow

This year, One Fair Wage is pushing for legislation to make employers, not workers, pay for training not workers.

In California, two pieces of legislation are moving forward – one to raise the overall minimum wage currently at $15.50, to an actually livable wage (the living wage in the cheapest County in California is $23.75), and also to end the subminimum wage for incarcerated workers.

The second bill is to get rid of the NRA scam to make sure employers, not workers, have to pay for food safety training. That bill just passed 9 to 2 in California.

Restaurants are paying workers better

One Fair Wage maintains a database that tracks thousands of restaurants across the country that have voluntarily raised their wages from $2, $3, and $5, to $15, $20, $25 $30 an hour in San Francisco.

Some restaurants pay $35 an hour plus tips because staff refuse to return for less. As a result of this upheaval, said Jayaraman “ we are winning policy across the country to raise wages and subminimum wages.”

Last year, One Fair Wage launched the “25 by 250 campaign” to move bills and ballot measures in 25 states by the 250th anniversary of the U.S.

The Fair Wage movement

Jayaraman said the fair wage movement is seeing momentum in California and across the country. They are currently moving legislation in New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Illinois, Colorado, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona, Michigan, and Idaho.

In Washington DC, they won a ballot measure to raise wages from $5 to $16.75 for restaurant workers. In Chicago, Mayor Johnson publicly supported One Fair Wage, ending the subminimum wage for tipped workers. In Pennsylvania, Governor Josh Shapiro announced legislation to raise both the minimum wage to $15 and the subminimum wage for tipped workers.

It’s a historic moment. For the first time since emancipation, workers are refusing to work for poverty wages. It’s resulting in policy changes across the country, including in red states like Arizona, Idaho, Michigan, and Ohio, which are putting the legislation on the ballot next year.

A livable wage has perks

“There are a great number of economies of scale that come with paying people a livable wage,” added Jayaraman. “ you have far less turnover, the cost of retraining and re-hiring and recruitment, particularly in the midst of a staffing crisis goes way down, morale goes up, consumer spending goes up, workers stay with you longer, there’s less employee theft.”

However, the restaurant industry is facing the worst staffing crisis in its history.  Despite the pandemic, the number of jobs has not gone down, but the number of workers willing to work in these jobs has gone down.

The future of the restaurant industry is secure in terms of restaurant owners and restaurants. What is not secure, added Jayaraman,  is whether there will be enough workers willing to work at these wages anymore.

“Unless these wage questions are addressed, there just is no real future of growth for the industry.”

Photo by Vanna Phon on Unsplash

Meera Kymal is the Managing Editor at India Currents and Founder/Producer at She produces multi-platform content on the South Asian diaspora through the lens of social justice,...