The restaurant industry is facing a shortage of workers due to its inability to offer a living wage

Among the things Americans say they are most looking forward to when pandemic restrictions end is “dining out at a restaurant with friends.” But if the restaurant industry doesn’t support higher wages, there will be fewer restaurants for customers to return to.

There is an unprecedented shortage of job seekers for catering jobs. In a new survey this week by One Fair Wage of more than 2,800 workers, more than half (53%) said they were considering leaving restaurants. More than three-quarters of workers surveyed (76%) said they left restaurants because of low wages and tips – by far the main reason for leaving – and a slightly higher percentage (78%) said that the factor that would keep them in restaurants is a “full, stable, livable wage.”

So it’s not, as many industry representatives would have you believe, a labor shortage. It is a racist and sexist wage shortage in that it disproportionately affects women and people of color and is a legacy of slavery. It is created by the narrow-minded greed of the industry and its business lobby, the National Restaurant Association, which has a history of fighting fair wages since its inception by white restaurateurs in 1919.

There are, in fact, plenty of skilled and experienced restaurant workers, many if not most of whom have been laid off and left destitute over the past year. The National Restaurant Association is now, for the most part, a conglomeration of corporate restaurant chains and a powerful lobby. As part of its transparent but sadly effective propaganda campaign, members have suggested that workers would rather stay home and collect unemployment than take jobs as they become available.

But that’s not true: More than half of restaurant workers have been denied unemployment insurance during the pandemic, largely because their base salary was too low to qualify, the survey finds. One Fair Wage. In fact, those lucky enough to receive unemployment benefits would immediately lose them if they refused to work; that’s how unemployment insurance works. Their low pay is the result of sub-minimum wage laws for tipped workers (still $2.13 an hour federally), the same laws the NRA has spent millions of dollars on, over the years. decades, to lobby to keep them in place.

Now, almost all minimum wage laws can be said to be woefully inadequate, and despite the doubling of labor productivity, minimum wage workers today are paid significantly less in real terms than their counterparts a few years ago. five decades. If Congress had continued to raise the minimum wage in line with the productivity growth of the past decades, the minimum wage today would be around $24 an hour, which is actually closer to its stated intention, a living wage.

But for tip workers in general and catering in particular – as well as agriculture and “domestic services”, wages are particularly bad. This sub-minimum wage is a direct legacy of slavery, still pushed by the same kinds of powerful business owners who opposed paying their workers after emancipation. Unsurprisingly, the sub-minimum wage has led to a massive racial and gender wage gap in the industry: Nationally, black women working for tips in restaurants earn $4.79 an hour less than their white male counterparts.

The reality, from what the workers themselves are saying, is that unemployed catering professionals do not want to return to jobs where the pay is lower than ever at a time when the job itself is more dangerous than never. Tipping is down about 50% to 75%, while public health researchers say restaurant work is the deadliest occupation during the pandemic.

Moreover, tipped workers already suffered the worst sexual harassment of any industry in the country and relied on food stamps at double the rate of the rest of American workers – almost entirely due to sub-minimum pay. During the pandemic, more than 40% of workers reported that sexual harassment in restaurants had increased, and hundreds of women said they were regularly asked to remove their masks so that male customers could judge their appearance and of their tips on this basis.

Not wanting to risk your health and well-being for poverty wages doesn’t make restaurant workers lazy; this makes them rather smart, cautious, and strategic, even if they desperately need work. Restaurant professionals are naturally fed up with an industry that has built its economic model for centuries on the exploitation of its workers. Their righteous anger, which has been simmering for some time, has come to a boil during the pandemic — especially now that Congress has approved $28.6 billion in aid for restaurant owners.

The simple question is: where is the relief for workers? Because, so far, a Congress still overwhelmingly dominated by anti-working class white men has failed to pass the Wage Increase Act, which would end the sub-minimum wage and establish the full federal wage. and fair for all workers at $15 an hour. , with tips on top, if any. It’s hard not to view this failure to end a direct legacy of slavery as racist.

A growing number of independent restaurateurs and chefs, along with a growing number of municipalities and states, understand that the old business model is broken and support an end to below-minimum wage. And more and more diners, who may never have realized that their tips make up a big chunk of waiter salaries, are translating their token support for racial and gender justice into calls for concrete systemic reform.

Because as refreshing as it is to return to a lovely cafe and order fabulously prepared food and drink with a group of friends, those of us who love to eat out know that great restaurants need great staff. Restaurants are only as wonderful as the people who work there. And to truly save the restaurant industry – and not just its owners – we need to ensure that restaurant workers receive full and fair wages.


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Cecil N. Messick