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She wants restaurants to take the ‘high road’: increased pay, better benefits, and more opportunity

Saru Jayaraman is the author of “Forked: A New Standard for American Dining.”
Saru Jayaraman is the author of “Forked: A New Standard for American Dining.”Sekou Luke

When Saru Jayaraman looks at the American restaurant industry, she doesn’t just see fast food, casual, or fine-dining establishments, but two kinds of businesses: “high road” and “low road.” For Jayaraman, cofounder and co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), what goes on behind the scenes with workers is just as important as what is on the menu.

ROC United was originally created to help restaurant workers in New York after 9/11. It is now a nationwide nonprofit organization with 13,000 restaurant workers and 100 employers focusing on improving wages and working conditions in the industry. With high-profile restaurateurs such as Tom Colicchio on board as partners, and news of more restaurants abandoning tips and restructuring pay scales, Jayaraman sees signs of change. “In 15 years of working on this issue and this industry, I’ve never seen such a rift in the industry where you see industry leaders really parting ways with the traditional ways of doing business,” she says.

Her new book, “Forked: A New Standard for American Dining,” examines the different approaches at work across segments of the industry, and scores restaurants on pay and benefits. Jayaraman, who lives in Oakland, is also director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley.


Q. How do you differentiate high-road and low-road employers?

A. Number one is wages. Every year the US Department of Labor puts out a list of the 10 lowest-paying jobs, and every year seven of them are restaurant jobs. The second piece is benefits, and in particular paid sick days. These have become a real issue for workers in our industry, but also for consumers because it’s a matter of public health. The third is really mobility, particularly for workers of color, immigrants, and women. When you have the opportunity to move up the ladder, perfect your skills, and see that your hard work and merit pay off, then you feel like you’re in a profession.


Q. How does tipping figure into the business?

A. The whole idea of tipping didn’t originate in the United States. It originated in Europe as a vestige of a feudal system. Rich Americans traveled to Europe in the 1850s and ’60s and brought that back to the States. There was a massive populist movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s that resulted in six states passing complete bans on tipping. That spread to Europe, where the labor movement picked it up and succeeded with the rallying cry that workers should get paid by employers, not customers. There’s still not much tipping there. But we went the opposite direction.

Q. Why is that?

A. Because the restaurant industry and the Pullman train company demanded the right to hire newly freed slaves, not pay them anything, and let them live on customer tips. When the first minimum wage law passed in 1938 as part of the New Deal, they readily accepted this idea and codified it into law, saying you have the right to a minimum either through wages or through tips, essentially giving tipped workers a zero dollar minimum wage. It went from a zero in 1938 to a whopping $2.13 per hour in 2016.

Q. Don’t tips more than make up for the low hourly wage?

A. The truth is that 70 percent of tipped workers who live on that $2 or $3 wage are women who largely work at places like IHOP and Applebee’s and Olive Garden. And they’re women who have three times the poverty rate of the rest of the workforce and suffer from the worst sexual harassment of any industry in the United States. We’re doubly subsidizing these chains. We pay their workers’ wages through our tips and we pay for their workers’ survival through taxpayer-funded public assistance. You’re talking a total of $16.5 billion annually for the restaurant industry alone.


Q. Some of the restaurants you work with have eliminated tipping. Is that the answer?

A. Our campaign is not to eliminate tipping. It’s to eliminate the lower wage for tipped workers. I don’t actually think the solution is moving company by company from the low road to the high road. I actually think it’s all about policy that moves entire cities and states to the high road. That’s how you will achieve scale. We just passed $15 [minimum wage] in California — that’s for all workers. San Francisco is a high-road city. Every restaurant in the city not only has to pay $15 an hour, but has to provide health insurance and paid sick days. It’s pretty extraordinary.

Q. How do we do in Massachusetts?

A. I’ve always been shocked by how low the [tipped] minimum wage is in Massachusetts. It’s just around $3. That’s pretty shocking given how progressive Massachusetts is on many other issues. There was a paid sick day ballot initiative. Some fabulous champions in the legislature have introduced legislation proposing one fair wage in Massachusetts. Maine actually has a ballot measure on the November ballot to vote on one fair wage of $12 [per hour]. It’s polling very high.


Interview has been edited and condensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at michaelfloreak@gmail.com