The 20 million workers in the U.S. food system—the largest private-sector employer in the country—are more likely to receive public assistance and energy assistance than workers in any other industry. Perhaps most ironically, those who work with food—picking, packing, cooking, or serving—are more likely than other U.S. workers to experience food insecurity and collect SNAP benefits.
One solution to these issues is to raise the federal minimum wage, which activists say haven’t kept up with inflation and increases in costs of living. The minimum wage for tipped workers ($2.13), which primarily affects food servers, has not increased in 21 years.
“Food workers would benefit the most [from a wage increase], because food workers are earning minimum wage more often than any other industry,” says Joann Lo, executive director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a membership organization representing more than 170,000 food workers.
In 2012, bills that would raise the federal minimum wage were introduced – garnering 16 cosponsors in the Senate and 117 cosponsors in the House of Representatives—but never emerged from debate in their respective committees. A coalition of labor groups is pressuring lawmakers to reintroduce the Fair Minimum Wage Act this session, and the FCWA is asking food justice leaders, organizations, and businesses to sign a letter to Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who introduced the bill last year.
The act would increase the regular minimum wage from the current $7.25 per hour to $9.80 over three years, and the tipped minimum wage from $2.13 up to 70 percent of the full minimum wage. Lo says Rep. Miller needs to see continued and growing support in order to convince him to introduce the bill again this year, and plans to deliver the letter to him on Feb. 5. (She asks that all supporters submit their signature form by Feb. 4)
“The unique role that we feel we can play [in the minimum wage coalition] is organizing support for the Fair Minimum Wage Act with leaders, activists, organizations and businesses in the food movement,” Lo says.
More than 86 percent of food workers report earning subminimum, poverty-level or low-wage-worker pay, despite a vast majority reporting that they work 60 or more hours per week, according to an FCWA-commissioned report, “The Hands That Feed Us.” Consequently, one to two percent more food workers experience food insecurity than the overall population, and almost 14 percent collect SNAP benefits.
The Food Chain Workers Alliance studied the impact raising the minimum wage would have on food prices and found that on average, the increase would only be ten cents per person, per day. The Alliance has set up an online petition where consumers can pledge their willingness to pay a dime more per day so that food workers can receive a fair wage.
But minimum wage increases always provoke a backlash from some large corporations and food companies, and the organizations that represent them. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for instance, opposes the Fair Minimum Wage Act, as does Darden—the largest full-service restaurant corporation in the world and owner of chains like Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and Capital Grille. Lo says Darden’s opposition has led the National Restaurant Association—“the other NRA,” as she calls it—in fighting the legislation.
But plenty of food companies and restaurants have better-than-average wage policies, and a number of small businesses have publicly supported the Fair Minimum Wage Act. Lo says the companies with the best pay practices include those where a union helps ensure employees a fair wage (the UFCW has a smartphone app listing all unionized grocery stores), companies certified by the Agricultural Justice Project, and “high-road” restaurants that work with the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. ROC United’s 2013 National Diners' Guide provides information on the wages, benefits, and promotion practices of the 150 most popular restaurants in America in nine major U.S. cities.
“The guide lists responsible restaurants where you can eat knowing that your server can afford to pay the rent and your cook isn’t working while sick,” Lo says.
But while it’s crucial that consumers vote for fair wages with each food dollar they spend, advocates for a federal minimum wage increase say some companies won’t change their ways unless compelled to do so by law. A full slate of legislative priorities and heavy lobbying by food corporations could threaten the Fair Minimun Wage Act, but the focus right now is get it reintroduced. Sign the petition asking Congress to not let food workers go hungry!
Related stories on TakePart:
• Publix Still Claiming Tomato Workers Don't Deserve a One-Cent Raise
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• Better Than a Tip Calculator: Join the Food-Labor Conversation by Downloading This App
Steve’s story about healthy fast food was anthologized in Best Food Writing 2011. His food and general interest stories regularly appear in Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other places. Email Steve | @thebostonwriter