Reimagining national food sector begins with end to subminimum wages

Illustration of food service workers and business owners protesting in front of the US Captiol.
Lucy Yang/Staff

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The COVID-19 pandemic has simultaneously revealed deep structural inequities in the food service sector and created a tremendous opportunity to organize both workers and employers for necessary change.

Prior to the pandemic, the restaurant industry was one of the largest and fastest-growing sectors of the U.S. economy with 13 million workers, nearly 6 million of them tipped. Still, these workers struggled with a federal subminimum wage of just $2.13 an hour. This absurdly low pay is part of the lasting legacy of slavery: After Emancipation, the restaurant industry sought to hire newly freed slaves, mostly Black women, and force them to live entirely on tips — an unjust mutation of the original concept of tipping, which was intended to be a bonus on top of a wage.

Although California was one of seven states to reject this legacy of slavery, 43 states persist with a subminimum wage for tipped workers. Nationwide, 70% of tipped workers are women, disproportionately women of color, who, forced to tolerate inappropriate customer behavior in order to feed their families in tips, experience the highest rates of poverty and sexual harassment of any industry.

As a result of the pandemic, it is estimated that about 10 million restaurant and other tipped workers have faced unemployment. Of those surveyed, 60% reported being denied unemployment insurance because their wages and tips were too low to meet state thresholds to qualify. And now, millions of these tipped workers are being called back to work for a subminimum wage at a time when many workers report their tips being down at least 50%.

Even in states that have no subminimum wage, such as California, asking restaurant workers to risk their lives for meager wages and tips from customers who are being pushed to follow public health protocols will result in either those protocols not being enforced or workers not obtaining tips. This plainly reveals the unreliability of tips to begin with.

Outside of teaching at UC Berkeley, I lead a national organization called One Fair Wage, which seeks to end all subminimum wages. We launched an emergency fund for low-wage service workers, which raised $23 million and received 220,000 worker applicants, whom we have been organizing to demand the policy changes they need to survive. Over the summer, I worked with the UC Berkeley African American studies department to launch Freedom Summer 2020, in which 150 students called thousands of these low-wage worker applicants to explain how voting could impact their wages and to encourage them to engage their restaurant peers in voting.

Partly as a result of these engagements, tipped workers went on strike Aug. 31 in New York City and Chicago, saying they will not return to work without livable wages with tips on top, hazard pay and paid sick leave. On Sept. 30, and the end of each month after, workers in more and more cities will be joining those in New York and Chicago to strike, including Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and more.

In response to strikes nationwide, several hundred restaurant owners who previously opposed raising wages are now willing to transition to One Fair Wage — a full minimum wage, with tips on top, and increased race and gender equity — next year.

For some, their eyes have been opened to the unsustainability and racism of the system. For others, the moment has allowed them to break free from an old business model. All are being awakened by workers striking and demanding change.

Collectively we are envisioning a new business model in which workers are paid a livable wage; women and workers of color experience equity, safety and dignity; and, as a result, employers and consumers thrive. And now, with restaurant workers and employers newly demanding change together, we must push legislators to respond. If workers and employers, who are typically on opposite sides of the aisle, can unite in a pandemic, then so too can federal legislators who have been unable to similarly unite around much-needed relief for both restaurants and workers.

We must call on a recalcitrant Senate to rush relief to millions by reaching an agreement for a third stimulus package that would renew the $600 unemployment insurance payments and provide direct cash relief to restaurants. We must also vote for senators who will reflect the wishes of millions of workers and supportive restaurant owners by advancing the Raise the Wage Act. Legislators have failed to raise wages for tipped workers for decades, and this measure, which has already passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, would raise the minimum wage for all workers, including tipped workers and other food system workers, to $15 an hour by 2024. For our part, consumers must support “high road” restaurants that are willing to transition to One Fair Wage and increased race and gender equity, which will encourage other restaurants to follow suit.

Today, we have a rare opportunity to reimagine a more sustainable food sector. Now, more than ever, we must do so.

Saru Jayaraman is the president of One Fair Wage and director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley.