COVID-19 has revealed the deep structural inequities of the service sector, and has thus created a tremendous opportunity to organize both workers and employers for the change we’ve always needed. We can’t go back—we can only go forward together and reimagine an industry in which all thrive.
Before the pandemic, there were more than 13 million restaurant workers and nearly 6 million tipped workers across the United States, including restaurant, car wash, nail salon, tech platform delivery, and other workers. The National Restaurant Association had argued since emancipation that, given customer tips, they should be able to pay their tipped employees a subminimum wage, today just $2.13 an hour federally. A legacy of slavery, the subminimum wage for tipped workers today is a gender equity issue; 70% of tipped workers are women, disproportionately women of color, who work in nail and hair salons and casual restaurants such as IHOP and Denny’s, live in poverty at three times the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce, and suffer from the worst sexual harassment of any industry because they are forced to tolerate inappropriate customer behavior to feed their families in tips.
Seven states—California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Minnesota, Nevada, and Montana—have rejected this legacy of slavery and pay One Fair Wage, a full minimum wage with tips on top. These states have comparable or higher restaurant sales per capita, job growth among tipped workers and the restaurant industry, and tipping averages than the 43 states with lower wages for tipped workers, and half the rate of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. One Fair Wage, the organization I lead, has been fighting to ensure that the nation follows the leadership of these seven states.
Workers are being penalized because their employers paid them too little.
The subminimum wage for tipped workers resulted in a horrific experience for millions of tipped workers as a result of the COVID-19 economic shutdown. We estimate that between 4.5 million and 9 million restaurant and other tipped workers have already lost their jobs. Most are ineligible for unemployment insurance; hundreds of tipped workers have reported to us that they are being denied unemployment insurance because their subminimum wage plus tips is so low it does not meet the minimum threshold to obtain unemployment insurance. In other words, these workers are being penalized because their employers paid them too little. Even among those who are eligible, unemployment insurance is being calculated based on the subminimum wage plus, generally, an under-evaluation of their tips. Millions of workers find themselves now unable to pay for rent, food for their children, or other bills.
We launched the One Fair Wage Emergency Fund on Monday, March 16, to provide cash relief to thousands of low-wage service workers; the fund has exceeded 150,000 worker applicants in the past month. We have built an army of almost 1,000 volunteers who are calling each worker to screen them for need, organize them into One Fair Wage, and register them to vote. Our organizers then follow up with potential leaders to organize them into our relational voter program and ultimately, win One Fair Wage.
Our relief fund is drawing in low-wage workers, people of color, single mothers, immigrants, and young people. These workers are anxious to speak with us, not only because they are desperate for funds, but also because they are distraught and frustrated with the fact that they have worked for years in the service industry, only to find themselves completely destitute the day after their restaurants close. Almost all workers are signing up to join One Fair Wage, speak to press, and register to vote.
We aren’t stopping with just organizing workers—the extraordinary moment calls for more.
We have raised nearly $23 million to date to hand out relief to thousands of workers; we are also providing individual counseling to workers with regard to their unemployment benefits and finances. More importantly, we are organizing these thousands of workers into large national and state tele-town halls and virtual rallies with Congress members, governors, and other state legislators to allow them to raise their voices and make demands. It is a new and unique moment in organizing. Thousands of workers are attending these virtual events and demanding change with a fervor we’ve rarely seen. In this new and challenging moment for organizers, the OFW Emergency Relief Fund provides a clear pathway for a different kind of organizing and voter mobilization that will allow us to not only engage hard-to-reach populations civically but also develop their leadership to change the issues that most affect them.
But we aren’t stopping with just organizing workers—the extraordinary moment calls for more. The moment has shown that we can simultaneously support workers and ensure that responsible restaurant owners who care about their workers survive the crisis—and reshape the service sector going forward. In fact, several restaurant owners who previously opposed or were hesitant about One Fair Wage are now willing to work with us to commit to One Fair Wage and increased equity next year. For some, their eyes have been opened to the unsustainability of the system; for others, the moment has allowed them to break free from an old business model that they could not see how to change. Some are even working with us to design model restaurants of the future.
Based on these conversations, we have been working with various governors and mayors to launch High Road Kitchens—a program in which restaurants that commit to move to One Fair Wage and greater race and gender equity voluntarily next year receive public and private dollars to rehire their workers and repurpose themselves as community kitchens to provide free meals to those who need them. We are thus providing both relief to struggling independent restaurant owners, free meals to workers and others in need, and most importantly, reshaping the sector toward equity.
The pandemic is both the gravest crisis in the service sector’s history in the United States and also the greatest moment for transformation—for building power among workers and change among employers toward a sustainable future of collective prosperity.
Saru Jayaraman is Director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, President of One Fair Wage, co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), and author of Behind the Kitchen Door and Forked: A New Standard for American Dining. Her most recent book, with co-editor Kathryn De Master, is Bite Back: People Taking On Corporate Food and Winning.