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April 7, 2016
Take the High Road: How to Boost Wages and Dignity for Restaurant Workers
By Alexis Stephens
At the beginning of her new book Forked: A New Standard for American Dining, author Saru Jayaraman tells the story of her great-grandfather owning and managing a restaurant in the small town of Karur, India. It’s a moving tale of legacy, grit, and entrepreneurship. Even as Jayaraman writes how her great-grandfather treated his employees as family, she acknowledges that he did not always pay them enough to keep them out of poverty.
As the founding director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), Jayaraman works to improve wages and working conditions for the nation’s restaurant workers. Employers who are striving to meet those goals do exist, according to ROC United, calling these restaurants “high-road” employers. They are the ones taking the high road to a successful business and ensuring their workers don’t earn poverty wages.
Such models are sorely needed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 4.7 million food and beverage-serving workers in the United States take home a median pay of $18,550 a year. Despite consistent overall growth in the sector, workers in the restaurant industry still occupy seven of the 10 lowest-paying jobs in the country. In 2012, one in four women of color with jobs in the restaurant industry found themselves living in poverty.
In Forked, Jayaraman compares and contrasts employers who are choosing to take the high-road — offering paid sick days, health care, and childcare, improving job mobility, combating sexual harassment, and more. Below, we profile three of the high-road success stories.
Paying One Fair Wage: Florida Avenue Grill, Washington, DC
Restauranteur, lawyer, and real estate developer Imar Hutchins purchased Florida Avenue Grill, a Washington, DC diner established in 1944, as a part of a larger real estate deal in 2005. A vegetarian and former proprietor of vegan restaurants, Hutchins strove to maintain the legacy and culture of the site (including serving meat), while increasingly promoting health for both the diner’s workers and customers.
In the beginning, change was slow to take effect. “When you start something from scratch,” Hutchins told me, “it’s easy to set it up the way you want. But when you have something that’s been going, in our case for 70 years, it’s very hard to change anything.” In 2012, Hutchins introduced paid sick and vacation days and hiked the starting wage for both tipped and non-tipped workers to $9.50 an hour. Providing paid sick leave in food service protects the health of customers as well as job security for workers. Only 10 percent of U.S. restaurant workers have paid sick leave, while 60 percent have reported coming to work sick.
Believing in its principles, Hutchins joined ROC United, and is now a board member of the organization. One of their major campaigns, One Fair Wage, advocates for cities and states around the country to require restaurants to pay all their employees at least the regular minimum wage, so that the decision to increase wages doesn’t just fall on individual small business owners like Hutchins. The federal tipped minimum wage has been stagnant at $2.13 since 1991. The strongest proponent for maintaining this meager standard is the trade association and lobbying group the National Restaurant Association, whose member associations include McDonald's and Darden (the parent company of Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and Capitol Grille).
Mom-and-pop restaurants “just don’t have the capital that large corporations have,” said Hutchins, “so it’s ironic that the companies that are in the best position to do things like pay employees more money, for example, are the most ardently against it.”
ROC United also works alongside other local and national organizations and coalitions led by workers that are advancing campaigns like the Fight for $15 and institutionalizing a workers bill of rights in every major city.
Creating Job Mobility for Workers of Color: Busboys and Poets, Washington, DC
ROC United has documented the vast inequities along racial lines in the restaurant industry. Workers of color are consistently segregated into lower-level segments in the food industry — especially in fine dining — and workers of color earn $4 less than White workers in the U.S. restaurant industry.
Busboys and Poets, the chain of eight D.C. metropolitan-area restaurants that also features bookstores and event spaces, exemplifies an equitable approach. More than 600 people are employed by the chain and proprietor Andy Shallal has launched several initiatives to close the racial wage gap in his business. He encourages group conversations about race and culture as a part of the new employee orientation process.
Shallal also ensures that hiring is inclusive and that no one racial or ethnic group is concentrated in any particular position. He sees it as both a personal conviction and a smart business decision. “If you start hiring people from all types of diverse backgrounds, you expand your ability to attract people of different backgrounds,” said Shallal. “Customers like to go to places where they feel represented.”
“Eliminating the two-tiered system [of tipped and non-tipped employees] isn’t the whole sum of the solution in terms of eliminating racial disparities, but it is a huge part of it,” said Jayaraman, noting that it goes hand in hand with policy and desegregation work, “and working with employers to get them to actually promote from within from busser positions to server positions.”
Creating a Level Playing Field: Vimala’s Curryblossom Café, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Vimala’s Curryblossom Café is a farm-to-fork Indian restaurant located in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Owner and Executive Chef Vimala Rajendran left an abusive marriage and began selling takeout as a way to raise her children as a single parent. She ran her take-out business for 16 years before opening her current brick-and-mortar location in 2010. It has since become an award-winning, community favorite.
Two of the reasons Vimala’s Curryblossom Café is categorized as a high-road business: Rajendran has formalized a homegrown primary health care plan, Curryblossom Creations; she also offers a childcare allowance to her employees. “What’s replicable is not the specific benefits that she provides,” said Jayaraman, “but her consistent attempts to improve what she provides.”
The day Forked arrived in her mailbox, Rajendran’s neighbors read the entry on the restaurant to her and her husband. “All of us were in tears,” Rajendran remarked, “because Saru captured the soul of my life leading up to the start of this restaurant, as well as how I run it and the way we treat our employees.”
Jayaraman said she emphasizes the “high-road” metaphor in Forked and elsewhere because it underscores that restaurant employers are demonstrating an ongoing commitment, not reaching a destination. She also highlights ROC United’s legislative efforts as a demonstration of the strength in numbers. “We actually aren’t trying to create change company by company or get everyone to move out on their own in this direction,” commented Jayaraman. “We want employers to work with us to make it a level playing field by [helping] us pass policy that would have everyone do this, not just one employer.”
New Narratives, Bold Ideas: A Conversation on Race and Inequality with Economist Darrick Hamilton
By Courtney Hutchison
The story of America’s history is often told through the lens of rugged individualism — a nation that prospers because success and wealth are available to all who work hard enough. This narrative, which has found new life in recent election debates, is deeply problematic because it fundamentally ignores the ways in which powerful government systems have embedded opportunity into certain communities, and systematically denied it to others. Unpacking the causes and consequences of these systems — health care, taxes, finance, criminal justice, and others — on racial and economic inequality in the United States is at the heart of Darrick Hamilton’s life’s work.
An associate professor of economics and urban policy at The New School and current president of the National Economic Association (formerly Caucus of Black Economists), Hamilton spoke with America’s Tomorrow about the power of narrative in today’s racial politics and the bold, scalable reforms he believes are necessary to address America’s legacy of inequality and disinvestment.
In your work you critique the prevailing narrative around race and opportunity in America as a “post-racial myth.” Can you explain what you mean by this?
The post-racial narrative is remarkably consistent across party lines and across racial groups — it has become knee-jerk in American politics. It says that a lot of the legacies of discrimination have been dealt with within the Civil Rights movement, and the remaining disparities are the results of actions or inactions on the part of Black communities themselves. Embedded in this is the notion of personal responsibility — that Blacks need to recognize their own complicity in perpetuating inequality. From the President to leaders in the GOP to members within the Black community, you hear rhetoric that is couched in this expectation that it is up to Blacks to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and government’s role should be to incentivize them to do so.
The problem is this narrative is wrong. It ignores the large structural barriers that continue to exist in our society, it ignores the way that the existing distribution of wealth empowers certain populations and disempowers others, and it ignores the very large role that government continues to play in influencing markets so that they continue to benefit those who already hold wealth — who are disproportionately White. Take the mortgage interest deduction in our taxes — though it supposedly is intended to help Americans build wealth, it’s not putting people into homes, it’s rewarding those who already have homes. And if we look at the history of homeownership in America, we see that it was the government that generated a White middle class following World War II by giving returning veterans access to free higher education, low-interest loans to start businesses, and low-cost mortgages through the G.I. Bill. These policies were not extended broadly, however, and Black veterans in particular were not given the same access, and the legacy of that inequality is passed forward. Overcoming inequality is not about “incentivizing” Black communities because it’s not about their behavior, it’s about the resources — the endowment — they’ve been deprived of.
What kind of policies do you propose to empower, instead of “incentivize,” Black communities?
Capitalism without capital locks in inequality, so if we’re going to have a capitalist system, let’s arm people with the capital to be able to participate in it. The problem of inequality is bold, so our solutions must be bold and they must build wealth and assets.
Baby Bonds: My colleague William Darity and I have talked a lot about baby bonds — endowing every child with a protected, government trust account that will mature when the child becomes an adult and can be used for some asset-enhancing activity. They would be funded on a scale — so you imagine Oprah Winfrey’s kid would get $500, but a poor family might have up to $50,000 per child, with an average somewhere around $20,000. These baby bonds would provide individuals with seed capital so they can invest in some asset that will appreciate over time: they can put a down payment on a house, have a debt-free higher education, or start a business. This wouldn’t guarantee success, but it would provide assets to empower the opportunity for success.
Federal Job Guarantee: The biggest problem with labor bargaining power is the threat of unemployment. When unemployment rates are high, the threat of being destitute causes workers to accept lower wages and bad working conditions. But if we guarantee federal jobs that offer living wages and benefits — like most government jobs do — to anyone who wants one, we solve a lot of problems. It would dramatically reduce the need for health insurance reform because everyone would have access to a job with benefits, and the private sector will have to do the same to attract workers. It would drive wages up in the private sector because businesses would have to compete with the living-wage government jobs. Considering the country needs billions of dollars in infrastructure repairs that the private sector is not currently incentivized to take on, it would be feasible to create public works projects like we have in the past to create more public jobs.
Curriculum Reform: The way we structure our curriculum in grade schools right now, we end up with not only segregation across schools, but within schools. We have structured classes so that predominantly White students are placed in the higher-achieving classes and Black students in lower-achieving ones. Instead, we should be thinking about how we can give everyone access to the “talented and gifted” curriculum, and to quality teachers who are sympathetic to the students they are dealing with.
We have precedent for these kinds of programs: federal jobs through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Depression, asset investments through the G.I. Bill, huge investments in universal grade school education. This dominant myth that markets are the ideal solution for every problem, economic or otherwise, is distracting from the fact that government can, and has been, effective at connecting Americans to resources and opportunity.
As an economist who studies racial inequality, what do you think is necessary to build an inclusive, thriving economy?
I think we need to change the whole narrative around how we define economic health. The focus should not simply be on reducing the deficit. This current focus on reducing spending is ironically at odds with economic health, because by focusing only on reducing the deficit you are often stifling growth by cutting government spending, programs, and other sources of stimulus. Rather, we need to talk about the ways in which our economy is enabling to the greatest human capabilities of its citizens. The measure of our economic success should be: How well is this society allowing people to achieve the goals they set for themselves to their fullest extent?