US Restaurant Industry Lacks Wages, No Workers | Saru Jayaraman and Mark Bittman

Aamong things Americans to say they are eagerly awaiting the end of the restrictions linked to the pandemic being to “dine in a restaurant with friends”. But if the restaurant industry does not support higher wages, there will be fewer restaurants for customers to return to.

There is an unprecedented shortage of job seekers for restaurant jobs. In a new survey conducted this week by A 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 and livable salary”.

So it is not, as many industry representatives would have you believe, a labor shortage. It is a wage shortage that is racist and sexist in that it disproportionately affects women and people of color, and is a legacy of slavery. It was created by the myopic greed of the industry and its trade lobby, the National Restaurant Association, which has long struggled against fair wages since its inception. formed by white restaurateurs in 1919.

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There are, in fact, plenty of skilled and experienced restaurateurs, many, if not most, have been made redundant and destitute over the past year. The National Restaurant Association is now, for the most part, a conglomerate of corporate restaurant chains and a powerful lobby. As part of its transparent but unfortunately effective (so far, at least) propaganda campaign, members of “The Other NRA”, as many call it, have suggested that workers would rather stay at home and collect unemployment. rather than taking jobs as soon as they become available. .

But this is not true : more than half of unemployed restaurant workers were denied unemployment insurance during the pandemic, in large part because their base salary was too low to qualify, according to the One Fair Wage survey. In fact, those lucky enough to receive unemployment benefits would lose it immediately if they refused to work; that’s how unemployment insurance works. Their low pay is the result of below-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 put pressure to keep in place.

Now it’s safe to say that almost all Minimum wage laws are woefully inadequate, and despite the doubling of labor productivity, minimum wage workers today are paid significantly less in real terms than their counterparts earned five decades ago. Had Congress continued to raise the minimum wage in line with productivity growth in recent decades, the minimum wage today would be about $ 24 per hour, which actually comes close to his stated intention, a living wage. But for tip workers in general, and restaurants in particular (along with agriculture and “domestic service”), wages are particularly bad. This below-minimum wage is a direct legacy of slavery (note that the jobs it applies to are largely done by Bipoc and especially by women), still pushed by the same types of powerful business owners who opposed to paying their workers after emancipation. Unsurprisingly, the below minimum wage has resulted in a massive race and gender wage gap across the industry: Nationally, black women working for tips in restaurants make $ 4.79 less an hour than their white male counterparts.

Activists demonstrated their support for a minimum wage of $ 15 near the Capitol in Washington DC on February 25. Photograph: J Scott Applewhite / AP

Deadly trades

The reality, according to what the workers themselves are saying, is that jobless catering professionals do not want to go back to jobs where the pay is lower than ever at a time when the work itself is over. dangerous than ever. Tips are going down around 50% to 75%, while public health researchers say restoration work is the most deadly profession during the pandemic. In addition, tip workers were already familiar with the worst sexual harassment of any industry in the nation, and relying on food stamps to double the rate from the rest of American workers – almost entirely because of the below minimum wage. 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 that basis.

Not wanting to risk health and welfare for low wages does not make restaurant workers lazy; this makes them rather smart, cautious and strategic, even if they are in desperate need of work. Catering 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, simmering for some time, has reached its boiling point during the pandemic – especially now that Congress approved $ 28.6 billion in relief for restaurateurs.

The simple question is: where is the relief for the workers?

Because, so far, a Congress, still largely dominated by anti-worker white males, has failed to pass the Raise the Wage Act, which would end the below minimum wage and establish the full and fair federal wage. for all workers at $ 15 an hour, plus tips where applicable. It’s hard not to see this failure to end a direct legacy of slavery as racist.

A growing number of independent restaurateurs and chefs, as well as a growing number of municipalities and states, understand that the old business model is shattered and support the end of the wage below the minimum wage. And more and more diners, who may never have realized that their tips make up a large portion of waiter salaries, are translating their symbolic support for racial and gender justice into calls for concrete systemic reform. Because as refreshing as it is to go back to a lovely cafe and order fabulously prepared food and drink with a group of friends, those of us who like to eat out know that good restaurants need to. excellent staff. The restaurants are as wonderful as the people who work there. And to truly save the restaurant industry – not just its owners – we need to make sure restaurant workers are paid decent and fair wages.

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Cecil N. Messick

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