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Is 2014 the Tipping Point? Activist Researcher Fights to Raise Wages of Restaurant Workers

March 13, 2014
by Sarah Henry

Big tips make headlines. Consider the almost $500 gratuity on a $6 bill received by a Steak ‘n’ Shake waitress in Indianapolis, or the $1,000 that host Ellen DeGeneres gave Edgar Martiroysan, the pizza delivery guy at the Academy awards. But reality is far less lucrative for most restaurant workers, many of whom struggle to make ends meet in a notoriously low-paid industry.

“The largest workforce in America can’t put food on the table—except when they go to work,” says Saru Jayaraman, who advocates for change both as an advocate and as a researcher at UC Berkeley.

She says she believes 2014 may be the year that these employees, some 10 million strong across the United States, get the pay raise they’ve been waiting for—for 23 years. “There’s so much anger right now towards big corporate groups,” she notes, citing a new commitment to minimum-wage workers across the country and in Congress. “There’s incredible momentum right now for our work.”

At UC Berkeley, where she is a visiting scholar at the new Berkeley Food Institute, Jayaraman oversees Cal’s Food Labor Research Center. The center made a big splash with its recent report finding that U.S. restaurant workers—many of whom are women and people of color—are twice as likely to use food stamps as the rest of the workforce.

Her advocacy dates back at least 12 years ago, when she co-founded the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, which would become one of the nation’s largest workers’ rights groups. Jayaraman has continued on as co-director of the center, which represents 13,000 restaurant workers in 32 cities across the country. ROC  has sponsored restaurant protests, produced a mobile app diners’ guide for consumers concerned as much about labor ethics as food sourcing, and has won $7 million for workers—including sizeable settlements from high-profile chefs.

And yet Jayaraman has never worked in a restaurant to pay the bills—although she has put in time at ROC’s employee-owned restaurant Colors in New York. “I did everything from cleaning the bathroom to serving food. I learned that it’s ridiculously hard work and you have to be pretty skilled,” she says. “I’m clumsy, which doesn’t bode well for a waiter. You have to be quick in your head and on your feet.”

The 38-year-old daughter of Indian immigrants who endured hardships after emigrating to the United States, Jayaraman has campaigned for underserved communities since her college days. Injustice only fuels her intensity and she’s not afraid to think big: As an undergraduate at UCLA she founded a mentoring program for women of color in Los Angeles. She went on to graduate from Yale Law School and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, she began advocating for New York City restaurant workers who lost their jobs.

Soon she broadened her efforts to improve conditions in the industry, pushing for  paid sick leave and programs for advancement. She recently authored Behind the Kitchen Door to document poor working conditions, racism and sexism in the restaurant industry.

Researcher and activist Saru Jayaraman
To this day, eating out is not a casual affair for her: Jayaraman chooses to frequent restaurants where she knows staff are treated and paid fairly and she’s not shy about speaking up if she sees inequities in other restaurants, such as racial segregation between the front and back of the house.

It’s her battle with ROC to increase the tipped minimum wage—which has been frozen at the federal level at $2.13 since 1991—that’s creating buzz now. Waiters, bussers and bartenders would dearly love a raise. But powerful lobbying groups such as the National Restaurant Association argue that upping the minimum wage will lead to increased unemployment and even poverty. The White House and congressional Democrats, who have authored a bill to increase the federal minimum wage, want to make this matter a top talking point in the 2014 elections. Several states and cities will also consider the issue in initiatives slated for a vote in November.

Seven of the 10 lowest paying jobs in the U.S. are in food service at a time when food culture is thriving around the country. Jayaraman’s effort has cross-over appeal between food movement activists (traditionally concerned about environmental and ethical issues) and so-called foodies (who are more likely to know and care about their farmers and chefs than their food servers.)

“Saru brought the plight of restaurant workers into the food movement for the greater good,” says Marion Nestle, a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. “The food movement is at the point where taking up this issue makes perfect sense.”

Adds Nestle, author of Food Politics and What to Eat, who earned a Ph.D. in molecular biology and a master’s in public health nutrition at Cal Berkeley: “If I read the tea leaves correctly, there is much public sympathy for the plight of tipped workers and much less sympathy for those opposed to paying workers a living wage.”

A March 2013 Gallup Poll found that 71 percent of Americans favor raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 per hour, a finding mirrored by other polls.

Last year, one-day fast-food workers’ walkouts were sponsored by labor unions in some 100 cities around the country to build support for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour—further evidence of the growing discontent of low-wage workers at companies like McDonald’s. Joining forces in support of such actions? Food movement leader Michael Pollan, UC Berkeley professor of science and environmental journalism and  author of best-selling books on the U.S. food system. In an email message to members of the liberal group, Pollan, a member of the Berkeley Food Institute’s executive board, wrote: “If we are ever to produce food sustainably and justly, we will first have to pay people a living wage so that they can afford to buy it.”

Of course, some waiters working in fine dining make out handsomely on tips. But Jayaraman points out they are the exceptions. “We’re talking about women of color who work at IHOP and Red Lobster,” says Jayaraman, who started a branch of ROC in Oakland, when she moved from New York in July 2012. ROC also runs its own restaurants in New York and Detroit, which serve as employee-owned training grounds for food service workers. The non-profit ROC, with an annual budget of $4.5 million and donors and funders such as The Ford Foundation, has branches in 11 locations around the country, including Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Michigan, New York and Los Angeles.

“Ms. Ja­yara­man end­lessly peddles the myth that tipped work­ers take home $2.13 an hour, but it’s simply not true,” coun­ters Mike Paran­zino of ROC Ex­posed. “She pre­tends tips don’t ex­ist.”

Not that Jayaraman is without critics—chief among them, lobbyist Richard Berman, whose corporate clients include other corporate American interests. Through his public affairs firm Berman and Company, he operates industry-funded non-profit organizations, including the Employment Policies Institute. Another of his organizations, ROC Exposed, frequently disparages Jayaraman, her organization and her research. ROC Exposed has run full-page newspaper ads accusing the organization of demonizing the restaurant industry and harassing customers.

Michael Saltsman, research director at the Employment Policies Institute, maintained in a recent opinion piece that the premise of a Labor Center report—that safety net spending associated with fast-food restaurants is disproportionate to other industries—is an “incendiary claim…[that] doesn’t stand up to careful scrutiny.” Adds ROC Exposed communications director Mike Paranzino: “Most of ROC’s reports are never published in peer-reviewed journals. They are press releases dressed up as social science research .”

Paranzino characterizes ROC as “a labor union front group” that hides its true agenda “so that it can accept tax-deductible donations and more easily receive taxpayers and foundation dollars.” In an email, Paranzino writes that because ROC is a non-profit workers center it “skirts federal labor laws designed to govern labor-management relations…ROC protests against its targets endlessly, while union workplace protests are regulated by labor law to ensure fairness.”

Jayaraman is non-plussed. “The criticism of our research is just dumb,” she says. “We work with some of the brightest minds in academia from around the country. My book is a peer-reviewed book published by Cornell. We go through so much rigor in terms of our research.”

As for the union front label, she says: “We don’t seek collective bargaining agreements and none of the restaurants we’ve campaigned against have ever gone union. There’s just no evidence for those claims.” If anything, traditional labor has been wary, in the past, of what worker centers like ROC were trying to do, adds Jayaraman, who notes unions are more supportive now but the different organizations work independently of each other.

The Labor Center acknowledges it does receive union funding. The Food Labor Research Center, according to information supplied by UC Berkeley’s public records office, has received two contracts funded by the Food Chain Workers Alliance—whose members include the United Food and Commercial Food Workers Union and various nonprofits organizations advocating for workers’ rights.*

The criticism doesn’t end there: Paranzino takes issue with Jayaraman’s characterization of tipped workers too. “Most tipped workers choose those jobs precisely because they can make good money from the tips,” he maintains. “Ms. Jayaraman endlessly peddles the myth that tipped workers take home $2.13 an hour, but it’s simply not true. She pretends tips don’t exist. The people who are struggling the most in this economy are people without jobs. The minimum wage hike ROC and Ms. Jayaraman are pushing would, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, kill about 500,000 working class jobs. You can’t get out of poverty without a job.”

Paranzino is partly correct in his reading of the CBO report, which concluded that a pending Congressional proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 could cost an estimated 500,000 jobs. But the report also noted that the same action would move 900,000 employees above the poverty level.

Jayaraman’s self-styled dual roles—as workers’ rights activist and the objective labor academic—cause some to question the validity of her research. But Nestle sees no conflict of interest. She maintains that activism and rigorous, independently-funded research are not inherently incompatible, if the research is done well and is replicable by others. As a case in point, Laura D’Andrea Tyson, a professor at the Haas School of Business at Cal, wrote about the significance of the minimum wage for women and families in a March 2013 piece for the New York Times: “The prevailing view among economists, reinforced by rigorous studies over the last decade, is that a modest increased [in the minimum wage] would boost the wages of workers and have little to no negative effect on employment,” wrote the former head of the Council of Economic Advisers and the National Economic Council under President Clinton. “A higher minimum wage would also enhance labor productivity, reduce worker turnover and absenteeism and lower the costs of recruiting and training employees.”

“Ul­ti­mately, this sys­tem of tip­ping needs to go,” Jayaraman says. “I can see a day when res­taur­ant work­ers are paid like salar­ied pro­fes­sion­als.”

“Many of the biggest restaurant chains in the country are paying their executives millions in annual compensation, while crying poor about increasing the tipped minimum wage above $2.13,” says sustainable food advocate and author Anna Lappé, who runs the Real Food Media Project. “Darden, which owns Olive Garden among other restaurants, paid its top five executives more than $16 million last year.” Attacks against ROC are simply a sign that corporate food interests are running scared, adds Lappé. “This criticism is a form of flattery: It shows that Berman, and the companies that pay him, think Saru and her colleagues are actually a threat, because as more Americans learn about the abuse food workers face, more of us will call on these employers to take the high road.”

President Obama endorsed the Democrats’ Fair Minimum Wage Act in his State of the Union, but it faces stiff opposition in the Republican-controlled House. The proposal would raise the minimum wage in stages from $7.25 to $10.10 and the tipped minimum wage to 70 percent of that, a base wage increase to $7.07 an hour.

Opponents of the hike argue that it could lead to less hiring, increase tensions over disparities between the front and back of the house in restaurants, and alienate diners who may be asked to absorb increased costs.

Already more than 30 states have enacted minimum tipped wage rates in excess of the feds, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In Massachusetts, the minimum tipped wage is $2.63, while in Washington state it’s $9.32 and in Oregon it’s $9.10. California, currently at $8, is set to break the $10 mark in 2016. That’s one reason why opponents, such as the National Restaurant Association, argue against federal action. “Nobody is making $2.13 an hour,” the restaurant association’s Scott DeFife, executive vice president for policy and government affairs, has said. “Tipped employees regularly earn $16 to $22 an hour.”

So, which is it: Do tipped workers earn just $2.13 an hour or $22? The reality may lie somewhere in between: The median income for food and beverage workers was $8.84 an hour in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of course, a small subset of waiters in high-end establishments routinely getting wads of cash gratuities could skew such income figures, as could under-reporting of cash tips. Jayaraman maintains that in both her academic research and anecdotal experience the majority of tipped servers are scraping by and keeping the federal tipped minimum wage low drives down restaurant wages.

Still, she remains optimistic. “What’s exciting this year is we are leading several pieces of legislation and ballot initiatives at the state and local level around the country where we’re actually moving to eliminate the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers altogether,” she says. “There’s a lot of momentum in these places and real potential for change.” Jayaraman says, adding that Michigan may follow suit.  In seven mostly Western states, restaurants have to pay their tipped workers the prevailing minimum wage, which is well over $2.13. A similar mandate is pending in the Florida legislature.

Jayaraman feels momentum building around the country for her cause and a growing synergy between workers’ rights organizations like ROC and traditional labor, women’s movement and food movement leaders. “What’s at the core of what’s wrong with the food system and the world of labor is corporate control of our democracy. It’s what every one of the food movement books have named as the problem,” she says, works such as Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation.

In fact, she says the bickering over raising the minimum wage is almost beside the point. “Ultimately, this system of tipping needs to go,” she says. “I can see a day when restaurant workers are paid like salaried professionals, make a liveable wage for the region where they reside, and tips are a luxury on top of that. It’s our moment to set things in motion to make that happen in the years to come.”

* This information corrects an earlier version of the article.

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