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Hostility, Harassment, and Low Wages Are Keeping Many Restaurant Workers Home

Saru Jayamaran says workers are “being asked to do so much more for so much less”

A man puts on a face mask Gary He/Eater

As restaurants around the country rush to staff up to meet the increased demand from customers, owners are finding it increasingly difficult to fill all their open roles. One factor is simply the onslaught of new positions. But workers’ rights advocate Saru Jayamaran says many workers are exiting an industry that is asking them to do so much more for so much less.

Jayamaran, who is the president of One Fair Wage, a group fighting to abolish the tipped minimum wage, says front of house employees, who often rely on tips but have to enforce at times controversial mask mandates, are especially fed up. “We’ve just heard from so many, literally thousands of workers who are saying it is just not worth it anymore. It is not worth it to be paid so little, to get so little in tips and to have to put up with so much more in terms of responsibility, health risk, hostility, and harassment,” she told Eater’s Digest this week.

She and many advocates hope this moment becomes a turning point for an industry with a notoriously vulnerable workforce and offers workers leverage to get the benefits and wages they’ve been asking for.

Listen to Jayamaran discuss the dynamics at play for restaurant workers facing a return to their jobs right now, why higher unemployment benefits is not a contributing factor for many workers, and how this moment could lead to lasting change. Afterwards, listen to Culinary Agents CEO Alice Cheng talk about what the jobs board data is telling us about hiring and restaurateur Jenn Saesue explain what it’s like on the ground hiring up at two restaurants right now.

Listen and subscribe to Eater’s Digest on Apple Podcasts, and read the condensed and edited transcript of our conversation below.

You often represent workers and fight for workers’ rights. So I want to hear your perspective on the labor shortage and what this situation is from a worker’s point of view.

So we’ve been trying to warn the industry for the last year that this was coming. We were hearing from workers all last year that they just were starting to feel like it just wasn’t worth it to stay in this industry, to stay in their jobs. Because during the pandemic, not only did workers lose their jobs and then often not qualify for unemployment insurance — because in most states they were tipped, workers were told their sub-minimum wage was too low to qualify for benefits — they found when they went back to work, about 70 percent of workers reported that tips are down 50 to 75 percent. And that health risks and harassment and hostility and their responsibilities are way up. So they are being asked to do so much more for so much less. They’re being asked now to enforce social distancing and mask rules on the very same customers from whom they have to get tips to survive, at a time when they’re saying, “Look, tips are already down 50 to 75 percent because sales are down.”

And 60 percent of workers said when they try to enforce these rules, they get tipped less. And by the way, it’s so much worse for Black workers. 60 percent of workers said they get tipped less when they try to enforce these rules. 73 percent of Black workers said they get tipped less when they try to enforce these rules. But worst of all, 41 percent of all workers have said that sexual harassment has gone way up during the pandemic. 50 percent of women said that sexual harassment has gone way up during the pandemic, mind you, in the industry that already has the highest rates undeniably now of any industry of sexual harassment, of any industry in the U.S. And as you have written about and know, we’ve been exposing that hundreds of women have been coming to us. Just today, we heard from more women saying, “I am consistently and constantly asked, “Take off your mask so I can see how cute you are, how pretty you are, before I determine how much to tip you.”

So they’re being asked to do so much more for so much less. And we’ve just heard from so many, literally thousands of workers who are saying it is just not worth it anymore. It is not worth it to be paid so little, to get so little in tips and to have to put up with so much more in terms of responsibility, health risk, hostility, and harassment. And so we did a survey of New York City workers, for example, earlier this year, and almost 40 percent of workers said they are thinking about leaving the industry. Top two reasons were health risks and wages. And number one reason they said that would make them stay is a livable wage, a full livable wage.

And speaking about the health risks, a lot of servers and back of house employees weren’t prioritized for vaccines. I think that’s important to point out.

That’s right. I mean, it boggles my mind. If we, as a society, as an economy, as an industry, are in such a rush to reopen, then why are we not vaccinating these workers first and foremost. If we want this industry to reopen and we consider these workers to be essential, which they are, we are relying on them to enforce social distancing and mask rules in these restaurants. If they’re essential, then they should have been vaccinated in the way that teachers and the nurses and everybody else. But if they’re essential, they also need to be paid. Because other essential workers are talking about hazard pay, additional pay on top of their work. These are essential workers are not even getting the minimum wage.

Do you think this is a moment where people will be raising wages? Like workers now finally have the leverage that people like you have been asking for, for so long?

That’s already been happening. All of last year, we were hearing from restaurants across the country who said, “You know what? We’ve changed our mind, or we’ve decided we’re going to move to a full minimum wage with tips on top,” because either they were moved by the murder of George Floyd and they didn’t want to perpetuate the sub-minimum wage as a legacy of slavery and a source of racial inequity, or they were moved by everything I’ve described in terms of women having to take off their masks and increased hostility and harassment, or they couldn’t get their workers to come back to work. And so they did start paying a full minimum wage. And so that was already starting to happen. And I think it’s going to be happening more so now. What I find very disheartening is some employers, especially chain restaurants that are saying, “Oh, it’s because they’re lazy and they want to stay home and get unemployment insurance.”

Well, let’s return to the statistic I said at the beginning. 60 percent of tipped workers couldn’t get unemployment insurance because in most states they were told their sub-minimum wage was too low to qualify for benefits. And the way unemployment insurance works, if you’re offered a job and you turn it down, you lose. If you’ve got unemployment insurance, which a minority of these folks did, you lose it if you turn down a job. So truly, these workers are choosing between the restaurant industry and no income. And because the benefits are so low, the wages are so low, the tips are so low, and the risks are so high, many of them are choosing no. No income, or I’m going to find something else because it’s just not worth it anymore.

When you said that some people have left permanently, do you think that is going to be a broader trend over the next few months?

I hope not. The industry is losing amazingly talented, skilled professionals. I hope it’s not an ongoing trend. But I fear that if the industry fights against wages going up and doesn’t as a whole really embrace the idea that its workers need the chance to survive, to thrive, to live, to be able to take care of themselves, then that is what will happen. We will lose incredible talent. We will lose skilled professionals.

Listen, this was a trend that was already happening. I know you’ve written about it. We were facing one of the worst labor shortages in our industry even prior to the pandemic, in the industry’s history in the U.S., prior to the pandemic. It’s just gotten so much worse. Because again, when you, as a human, weigh the risks versus the benefits of taking a job, it’s just not adding up right now. Being asked to take off your mask and expose yourself and your family to the virus, being treated with such hostility and harassment for trying to do your job, and at the same time, tips are so low and the employer’s not raising the wage, it’s just not worth it.

I think what you hear a lot from the business owners is that if they don’t have staff, they’ll raise the wages because they need to get staff. So like kind of the market corrects itself argument. So how do you respond to that?

I think that is a good thing, and that is already happening in a lot of cases. But I can tell you, there are hundreds of small business owners. We have an association (called RAISE High Road Restaurants) of 850 small business restaurant owners across the country. And a lot of them are people of color owned businesses, and they are saying two things. “One, we are having to do this. We are having to do this to get workers to come back. We’re having to do this because we need to raise wages to ensure there’s consumer spending during this horrible time. We need to ensure people can spend in our restaurants. So we need to raise wages. But we can’t do it alone. It has to be a level playing field. Everybody has to go up at the same time. That’s how we all survive together.”

So I would respond and say it’s a very good thing that some employers are finding that they have to raise wages, because it’s long overdue. And that as those employers raise wages, I think they’re going to join us in the call for this to become policy and not just individual businesses having to do this. But I have a second thing to say here, because there’s been a lot of talk in our industry about addressing racial inequity after George Floyd, now with the rise in Asian-American violence. Like a lot of the small business owners of color that are part of our group also want to make sure their colleagues in the industry here, that being woke and addressing racial equity is not just about putting something up in your window. It’s about paying people a livable wage, ending a legacy of slavery, ending a source of racial inequity, which is forcing workers to live exclusively off tips.

Have you seen any business owners employ creative solutions? I know there are probably a lot of people listening to the show who are saying, “I just got ravaged by this pandemic. I don’t have the money to raise the wages for my staff. And I can’t find people to work. What am I supposed to do here?”

Yeah. Well, we would love to talk to those people because we have an association that has a whole training and technical assistance program to help employers figure out how to do it profitably, how to raise wages and stay profitable, how to find other ... The thing about raising wages is, A, you can do it slowly over time, but B, it actually reduces turnover. So there’s all kinds of additional costs that are saved. It increases employee morale and longevity and customer service, their excitement to work, their willingness to stay, their ability to upsell goes up when they’re paid better.

On top of all of that, in 2018, we passed a law in Congress that says if you pay the full minimum wage to all workers in the restaurant, you can share tips with the back of the house. And this is a really, we think, great, not just great solution, creative solution, it offsets some labor costs in the back of the house. But more importantly, it creates equity between front and back. Everybody goes up together. You share the incentives and burdens of tips. It really creates a better sense of team between front and back. So this is one of the best solutions we’ve seen.

Did you say that’s proposed, or that is legal now?

That’s legal now.

And is it your goal to push towards eliminating tipping in general?

No. We are trying to get everybody to a livable wage with tips on top. There are some employers that choose to go all the way and get rid of tips. We are supportive of that if they can guarantee that, with a full salary, these workers are getting what they used to earn. Everybody’s getting what they used to earn with tips. What we do know is that actually the states that pay a full minimum wage with tips on top, every quartile of workers from the highest tip earners to the lowest tip earners earns more than their peers. So that fine dining servers in California earn more than the fine dining servers in states with sub-minimum wage. And Denny’s servers earn more than in states with the sub-minimum. Everybody earns more with wages and tips, and it just doesn’t happen that tips go away or tips are lessened. So we are supportive of various models, as long as people end up with a livable wage and certainly not less than what they earned before.

The $15 minimum wage was floated around in this recent government package. And then there was criticism of it from people saying like it’s a no-go with the tipped minimum wage being $15. Do you see a world in which a $15 minimum wage gets passed, where there’s still a much lower tipped minimum wage in there?

That’s certainly what the National Restaurant Association is fighting for. But we’ve got incredible support from the White House, from Senate leadership, that’s really pushing that we finally end this legacy of slavery. So that’s what I’d love everybody to know. This train is moving. It is happening. This is the future of the industry. We are going to move away from this legacy of slavery as a country, as an industry. Consumers want it, workers want it. And so rather than fighting it and resisting it, let’s work together to make sure employers can survive and be profitable and thrive and see the benefits of paying people better.

Thank you so much.

Thank you. Thank you both so much.