Op-Ed: A Heaping Plate of Momentum for Restaurant Workers

After years of low wages and poor benefits, conditions for food-industry employees are looking up thanks to organizations like ROC United.

Many restaurant workers are paid poverty wages and do not get paid sick days. (Photo: Chris Sattlberger/Getty Images)

May 15, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Saru Jayaraman is the Director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley, and an author.

For too long in America, the restaurant workers who help put food on our tables have not been able to feed their own families or stay home from work if they’re sick. But there are encouraging signs that this may finally change and that our workplace laws and benefits may finally catch up with the reality of the modern American economy.

The restaurant industry is the largest and fastest growing industry in America today—an important element of any economy but especially one teetering on the edge of recovery. And yet the industry is largely built on the backs of restaurant workers who are paid poverty wages, lack access to paid sick days and other basic rights, and are regularly subjected to discrimination based on race and gender. If we are going to create an American economy that works for all workers, we can start by fixing the inequalities in this massive industry that is dragging us all down in a race to the bottom.

I cofounded the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) after 9/11 together with displaced World Trade Center restaurant workers. Today, we have over 10,000 restaurant worker members in 26 cities, 100 restaurant employer partners, and several thousand consumer members. Our movement is gaining more momentum than ever.

First, we are making great strides in pushing to raise the minimum wage for all workers, including tipped workers. The minimum wage that restaurants are required to pay tipped workers is just $2.13 an hour and has been frozen at that level since 1991. Tips are supposed to make up the difference, but many workers don’t receive tips and literally end up taking home just $2.13 an hour—or, in cases of wage theft, even less. President Obama committed to raising the minimum wage in this year’s State of the Union Address and legislation has been introduced in Congress that would include an increase in the tipped minimum wage. We’ve seen more progress on this issue in a few months than we’ve seen in a decade. But we must keep the momentum going and turn the talk into concrete change.

Second, paid sick day legislation is gaining ground across the United States. In March of this year, Portland, Oregon, became the fourth city in the country to mandate paid sick days for workers—joining San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Seattle as well as the state of Connecticut. New York City is poised to pass paid sick day legislation as well; however, the current bill excludes restaurant workers. Nonetheless, these are momentous steps forward. Those of us who agree that a waitress with the flu should be able to stay home from work—and not get her coworkers and her customers sick, too—know there is much more work to be done to advance this basic right.

Third, there is a new groundswell of organizing to push for these and other changes. ROC United has created a diner’s guide and smartphone app to help consumers across America support businesses that provide decent wages and benefits, and advocate for improvements at other establishments. We have also created RAISE (Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards in Employment), an alternative membership group to the National Restaurant Association—which advocates on behalf of big chains to drive down wages and cut benefits. And we have launched a sustainable and ethical diners’ association, called The Welcome Table, to help all of us join restaurant workers in the quest for better dining experiences and a better economy for all.

We celebrate many of our most joyful and precious moments in restaurants—from birthdays to engagements to anniversaries. We want the people who work at restaurants to be treated with the same dignity and respect with which they treat us, ensuring that dining is about sustainability, not suffering; about good food and good wages and benefits. Those of us who eat out don’t just hold a fork and knife—we hold the power. Join us and speak up for change!