Better Wages for Those Who Feed Us

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act, we invited three Foundation grantees to address the unfinished work of the Act and the next generation of reforms to protect working families at the bottom of the labor market. What follows is one of those responses. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Public Welfare Foundation.

By Saru Jayaraman, Co-Founder and Co-Director, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and
Maria Myotte, Communications Coordinator, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United

The fight to establish a minimum wage was based on the notion that all workers deserve a modicum of security and stability – a crucial component of any equitable economy and the foundation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, when it was passed 75 years ago. Today, however, tipped workers – that is, mostly restaurant workers – have been effectively excluded from this security and stability, because surviving off the generosity of diners from shift to shift is an especially unpredictable way to make a living and support a family.

The restaurant industry is one of the largest and fastest-growing sectors of the U.S. economy and, at the same time, the nation’s lowest-paying employer.  According to the U.S. Department of Labor, seven of the 11 lowest-paying jobs in America – including the two absolute lowest-paying – dishwashing and fast food cooks and preparers – are restaurant jobs.

While celebrating record-high sales and profits, the National Restaurant Association continues to lobby Congress to keep the federal minimum wage at $7.25 an hour – and successfully lobbied Congress to keep the tipped minimum wage frozen at $2.13 an hour for the last 22 years.

There are more than 10 million people currently employed by the restaurant industry, five million of them are women, including two million mothers and one million single mothers with children under the age of 18. In fact, the majority of people depending on tips – 70 percent – are women. If you are a restaurant server, you are three times more likely to live in poverty than the rest of the U.S. workforce and twice as likely to qualify for food stamps.

It is a terrible incongruity, but restaurant workers – the people who put food on the tables of thousands of restaurant-going Americans every day – cannot afford to feed themselves.

And despite the recession, many of us are still going out to eat. More than 50 percent of Americans eat out at a restaurant at least once per week, and 20 percent eat out two or more times per week, pushing the restaurant industry’s continued growth. The National Restaurant Association (the trade association of choice for Fortune 500 restaurant brands) would have you believe that raising wages would decimate jobs and destroy small business owners.

This simply isn’t true. There are several restaurants taking the lead in providing livable wages and benefits to their employees. They are succeeding because they have invested in their workforce.

Ben Hall and Jason Murphy, co-owners of the popular and profitable Russell St. Deli in Detroit, are great examples. In a city that recently declared bankruptcy, Ben and Jason are committed to creating good jobs and putting money back into the local economy. They pay their employees well above the minimum wage, offer paid sick days and health care benefits, and are the largest buyer of locally-grown produce in Detroit.

It is by raising the bar by which they do business – and not doing the bare minimum required by law – that they have been able to grow at 11 percent annually. They are currently in the midst of opening a new restaurant and creating more good jobs in a city that needs them. Fortunately, they are just one of a growing number of examples.

Some of the leading voices that have taken the high road to profitability are banding together in an alternative restaurant association, Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards in Employment (RAISE), to provide support and leadership for restaurant owners that share their commitment to fair wages. Most people support raising the minimum wage. And research shows that even if employers passed the cost of increasing the minimum wage entirely onto their customers, the cost of food would increase, at most, by a dime a day.

Despite growing consumer support and restaurants increasingly leading by example, long-term improvements to the largest low-wage job provider in the US will require a political moment on par with that of the original Fair Labor Standards Act. Good news is on the horizon; the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, currently proposed in Congress, would not only increase the minimum wage for tipped workers, but would also re-link the tipped minimum wage to be 70 percent of the overall minimum wage. This raise is 22 years overdue for tipped workers.

This year we commemorate the Fair Labor Standards Act, and there is, hopefully, increasing momentum to raise the minimum wage. One pivotal question is whether after 22 years, tipped workers will be left out again.

Our hope is that anyone who supports the minimum wage will agree that, to honor the true spirit of the Fair Labor Standards Act, workers in one of the largest and fastest growing segments of the U.S. economy should not continue to be left behind.


The Public Welfare Foundation supports efforts to advance justice and opportunity for people in need. These efforts honor the Foundation’s core values of racial equity, economic well-being, and fundamental fairness for all. The Foundation looks for strategic points where its funds can make a significant difference and improve lives through policy and system reform that results in transformative change. For more information, visit Follow the Foundation on Twitter or on Facebook.

Saru Jayaraman

Saru Jayaraman is a co-founder and co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, Inc. (ROC United), which organizes restaurant workers to wage workplace justice campaigns, conduct research and policy work, partner with responsible restaurants, and launch cooperatively owned restaurants called COLORS. She previously co-founded a national young women’s organization called Women and Youth Supporting Each Other.

Maria Myotte

Maria Myotte is the National Communications Coordinator for Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United. Before ROC, she worked within the environmental organizing and good food movement in Colorado.

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