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Home » Clarion » 2013 » March 2013 » Restaurant Workers Reach Out for Diners' Support

Restaurant Workers Reach Out for Diners' Support


Between 1991 and 2011, spending in the United States on meals eaten outside the home went up by 49%, after adjusting for inflation. More than half of all US meals are now consumed away from home, and that’s been true since 2004. But the wages of those who serve this food are low and have remained that way: the federal tipped minimum wage has not gone up one cent in more than 20 years, remaining stuck at $2.13 an hour.


Seven of the nation’s ten lowest-paying jobs are in restaurants, and their median wage, with tips, is $9 an hour. In other words, fully half the jobs in this industry are paid less. Servers “are almost three times more likely to be paid below the poverty line” than the workforce as a whole, according to a report from the Restaurant Opportunities Center–United (ROC). Ironically, food servers are “nearly twice as likely to need food stamps as the general population.”

One in Ten Workers

The restaurant industry is one of the nation’s fastest-growing, even through the current recession, and now employs 10% of the US workforce, or more than 10 million workers in all. In her new book, Behind the Kitchen Door, Saru Jayaraman, director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley and a co-founder of ROC, examines the ugly low-wage reality that is part of our growing reliance on outside-the-home meals.

The problems Jayaraman details in her book are both unsurprising and deeply shocking – the depth of the racial discrimination and sexual harassment, the prevalence of stolen wages, the number of restaurant workers who are one or two mishaps away from homelessness. Jayaraman takes a look at the power of the employer’s lobby, the National Restaurant Association, which she calls “the other NRA.” The National Restaurant Association has worked hard – and spent a lot of cash – to keep the tipped minimum wage unchanged for more than 20 years, and to block other reforms such as requiring a minimum number of paid sick days.

“There’s nobody who isn’t outraged by $2.13,” says Jayaraman. “Given that, how outrageous is it that Congress hasn’t changed the tipped minimum wage in all this time? They’re not listening to their constituents; they’re listening to big money.” While the law does require restaurant owners to cover the difference when a slow night leaves workers making less than the regular minimum wage ($7.25 an hour), this is ignored far more than it’s honored. That, Jayaraman says, is why raising the tipped minimum wage is so crucial.

Low Pay and Abuse

Only 1% of restaurant workers are in unions, and that, plus the low wages endemic to the industry, leaves workers vulnerable. Through her work at UC Berkeley, in her new book, and in her organizing work with ROC, Jayaraman aims to share their stories.

“A few weeks ago, I met a worker who had worked at Olive Garden for 20 years, and developed carpal tunnel and nerve problems from carrying the trays,” Jayaraman told Clarion. “ She never had a day off, because she never had paid sick days. The pain had become so bad that she could no longer feel her arm and her leg. She filed for workers’ comp, and they fired her three weeks later. She [had] opened the place, she had regulars, and they just fired her. She’s unable to move, unable to sit. What is going to happen to this woman?”

Conditions like these have prompted a rise in non-traditional organizing among food-service workers. The recent one-day strike by fast-food workers in NYC is one example; ROC is one of the most developed of these organizing efforts.

The organization has a New York soul – it was created here, out of 9/11. Workers at Windows on the World, the famous restaurant at the top of the north Tower, were unionized; the sought-after jobs had low turnover, and those who made and served the food at Windows formed strong bonds. After 9/11, some surviving workers – and their now-former union – contacted Jayaraman, and together, they started Restaurant Opportunities Center-New York. In 2007, ROC went national, led by Jayaraman and her co-director, Windows survivor Fekkak Mamdouh.

In her book, Jayaraman tells some quintessential New York stories, sharing the experiences of Mamdouh and ROC-NY Director Siby Sekou, a former Windows worker and an immigrant from the Ivory Coast who was ROC’s first official member. Others profiled in the book live across the country – there are waiters in the Midwest, a pastry chef from Philadelphia, workers in New Orleans and DC.

Jayaraman also showcases what ROC calls “high-road” employers, restaurant owners who offer better-than-the-minimum compensation, treat their workers fairly and promote from within. The profiles have two powerful commonalities: all of those profiled become organizers and advocates for a better industry, and they love their vocation and are deeply devoted to cooking and serving our food well. ROC, primarily an organization of restaurant workers, is enlarging its organizing to include diners. It’s this effort that inspired the writing of Behind the Kitchen Door.. Though it’s Jayaraman’s name on the cover, as a veteran organizer, she emphasizes that it’s a collective product, reflected in how often she says “we” rather than “I” in discussing how the book took shape: “We wrote the book to let consumers know what’s behind the kitchen door, so they can join us in the struggle for change,” she told Clarion.

Food Movement

Jayaraman explains that ROC has been working with Slow Food and other “food-movement” groups. “We saw the success in the food movement, in demanding locally sourced food items and restaurants,” she says. ROC and its allies agree that the “sustainable” food idea can, and should, include workers’ issues. “We decided to build consumer engagement for a groundswell for change alongside the workers,” Jayaraman says. As she’s talked about this idea with more and more diners, she describes hearing a lot of “shock and surprise.” “Most diners don’t know about $2.13, don’t know tips are the core of workers’ wages,” she told Clarion. In fact, years ago, Saru Jayaraman didn’t know either – the book chronicles her own trajectory from bad tipper to advocate-diner.

Diners allying with restaurant workers isn’t just a matter of doing something because it’s right, Jayaraman says – though that it certainly is. The two groups have some shared interests at work, for example, on the issue of paid sick days. A ROC study of New York City’s restaurant industry found that 84% of NYC restaurant workers do not get paid sick days, and more than half of the workers interviewed reported that they had worked while sick.

Common Ground

In the face of low wages and the very real threat of being fired for taking time off, even unpaid, the latter statistic is not a surprise. It also makes diners’ interest in paid sick days starkly clear. To help change such conditions, Jayaraman urges diners to make worker advocacy as regular a habit as leaving a tip. “It’s important not just to be a better tipper,” she told Clarion. “Speak up every time you eat out. I’ve found it’s easiest to do it at the end of the meal, as I’m paying the check.” She asks for the manager or owner, she explains: “I compliment the service. When I say something like, ‘I would love to see you provide paid sick days,’ I’ve found the employer responds, ‘Thank you very much.’ Doing it at the end shows your leverage as a customer.” ROC offers a consumer tool kit to help, including “tip cards” to facilitate speaking up and a ranking of restaurants’ labor practices (also available as a free app for iPhone or Android devices).

To organize diners, ROC helped launch The Welcome Table, “a national association of people who care about the food they eat and the people who have touched it, and want to be part of making a better food system for all.” At, diners can find easy organizing tools, view short films based on the workers’ stories in Jayaraman’s book, and sign up to stay informed.

A long-time New Yorker who taught at Brooklyn College before moving to UC Berkeley, Jayaraman thinks that New Yorkers, who eat out more than residents of any other US city, have special reason to get involved, That’s even more true, she says, for CUNY faculty and staff. In her classes at Brooklyn College, she recalls, “so many of my students were restaurant workers. This is an issue that intersects so intimately with the students in the University – it’s important that we all pay attention.


Dania Rajendra is a former associate editor of Clarion.

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