Saru Jayaraman on Dining Out

Saru Jayaraman of grantee Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. Photo by David Y. Lee for Public Welfare Foundation.

After years of resistance from many restaurant owners to improving conditions for their workers, the industry is now seeing “the greatest rift in the last 15 years” between those owners who want to make changes and those that do not. That’s the assessment of Saru Jayaraman, co-director and co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a Public Welfare Foundation grantee.

Jayaraman’s views are reflected in her new book, Forked, which highlights new standards that Americans should use in choosing restaurants, based on how workers – particularly, cooks, servers and bussers – are treated. She talked about diners’ expectations to an audience at the Public Welfare Foundation last week.

As Jayaraman pointed out, food service jobs are consistently among the very lowest paying jobs in the country, and the vast majority of those are not even in fast food restaurants. For decades, tipped workers have had their regular wage frozen at $2.13 an hour while they have been deliberately excluded from minimum wage increases. In addition to keeping a lot of restaurant workers in poverty, reliance on tips makes female workers vulnerable to sexual harassment from customers as well as co-workers and managers.

Low wages are reduced further by wage theft, which annually denies millions of restaurant workers the full amount of pay they have earned.

Beyond low wages, Jayaraman says that about 90 percent of restaurant workers nationwide say they do not have paid sick days “and two-thirds report cooking, preparing, and serving our food when they are sick – with everything from H1N1 to Hepatitis A.”

The good news is that many restaurant owners are now changing such practices, paying non-tipped and tipped workers hourly wages that amount to a decent living, offering paid sick days and promotion opportunities. Most of these “high-road” employers have seen their businesses thrive and Jayaraman and other worker advocates hope that they will become a majority within the restaurant sector.



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.

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