Saru Jayaraman used to believe that leaving a generous tip on a restaurant check meant providing a reward for good service. Now, the activist, co-founder and director of One Fair Wage and director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley, knows that restaurant workers depend on tipping for their wages.
In this Voices in Food story, Jayaraman talks about her commitment to eliminating the tipped minimum wage of $2.13 per hour and ensuring that all restaurant workers receive the federal minimum wage — plus tips — for their work.
On the road to activism for restaurant workers
My first job out of law school was working with immigrant workers on Long Island, New York. I worked with different immigrant workers in lots of different jobs — restaurants, nail salons, day laborers — but after Sept. 11 happened, I got a phone call from the union that represented the restaurant workers who worked at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center, asking if I would start a relief center in the aftermath of the tragedy. We started Restaurant Opportunities Center, or ROC. We were flooded by cries for help from restaurant workers first all over the city and then all over the country, and what started as a relief center grew into a national organization.
“The idea that this whole industry gets away with saying, ‘Customers should pay our workers’ wages for us,’ is an anathema and in direct contradiction to what we as a nation decided 150 years ago with the abolition of slavery, when we decided as a nation that employers should be paying for the value of labor.”
At ROC, it became very clear through lots of research and organizing work that workers’ top concerns were their wages. Most tipped workers in America continued to look at the subminimum wage as negligible. They rely almost entirely on tips as their sole source of income. We ended up focusing all of our efforts on One Fair Wage at ROC in 2013 and finally spun One Fair Wage into a broader effort to end all subminimum wages in the United States.
On how we ended up with a two-tiered wage system
Around 1850, there was a massive strike of waiters who were mostly men, and restaurants replaced them with women. It happened around the time of emancipation, so the feminization of this industry was combined with the entrance of Black people into the labor market … and that combination resulted in a mutation of tipping from being an extra or bonus to becoming the wage itself. In 1938, as part of the New Deal, workers got the right to the minimum wage for the first time — except for three groups of workers: farm workers, domestic workers and tipped restaurant workers, who were told they get a zero wage as long as tips bring it to the full minimum wage.
On the problem with a tipped minimum wage
The idea that this whole industry gets away with saying, “Customers should pay our workers’ wages for us,” is an anathema and in direct contradiction to what we as a nation decided 150 years ago with the abolition of slavery, when we decided as a nation that employers should be paying for the value of labor.
“When you have a dynamic in which a woman is completely dependent on tips to feed her kids, managers are able to tell women, ‘I’m telling you to encourage your objectification … so that you can earn more money in tips.’”
Today, 70% of these workers are women and they are disproportionately women of color who are not earning enough money in tips to survive. They use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the U.S workforce, and they have the highest rates of sexual harassment of any industry because they have to put up with all this inappropriate customer behavior to earn enough tips to feed their families. So it’s a crisis, but there’s no reason it can’t be changed.
On the connection between tipping and sexual harassment
The wage is so low that it goes entirely to taxes, leaving [workers] to live completely off their tips and completely dependent on putting up with whatever the customer does and says because the customer pays their bills, not their employer.
In research, we saw managers telling women to dress sexier, show more cleavage, wear tighter clothing in order to make more money. When you have a dynamic in which a woman is completely dependent on tips to feed her kids, managers are able to tell women, “I’m telling you to encourage your objectification … so that you can earn more money in tips,” and frankly, it benefits the employer because that means more sales. But it’s all dependent on a woman allowing herself to be objectified, allowing herself to be harassed.
On the impact One Fair Wage would have on the economy
Seven states — Alaska, California, Nevada, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon and Washington — all changed their laws to One Fair Wage 30-plus years ago. California changed its law 50 years ago, so we have decades of data showing how effective and successful it is to pay a full minimum wage.
All seven states have booming restaurant industries. The industries are growing faster, sales revenue is higher, job growth is greater and tipping is higher. You just have to look at California’s booming restaurant industry to know that it’s absurd to think that this kills the restaurant industry. On the contrary, the data is showing the opposite.
On how COVID-19 has exacerbated the issue
Tips are way down and it’s all become so much clearer during the pandemic, because any customer that comes in the door, they have more power over the workers. Workers are more dependent on any customer because there are fewer customers, and so that power dynamic gets exacerbated. In a report we just published, female restaurant workers reported that male customers are saying, “Take off your mask so we can see how cute you are and decide how much to tip you.” It obliterates the idea that tipping ever correlated with the quality of the service.
The restaurant industry is the canary in the coal mine for all sectors where workers earn a subminimum wage. It’s both a canary in the coal mine in a negative sense — having a subminimum wage is a boondoggle that a lot of other industries like the gig sector are increasingly trying to emulate — but it can also be a canary in the coal mine for building back better post-pandemic and really rethinking everything about how we work in America.
On the best ways to support restaurant workers right now
The answer is not to stop tipping — the workers desperately need those tips. The answer is to demand that these restaurants pay a full minimum wage. Consumers can call on governors and state legislators to change the laws in their states and encourage their favorite restaurant owners to change their practices.
Hundreds of independent restaurants have changed their practices during the pandemic to go to a full minimum wage, and we as consumers should encourage that. We have a website, highroadrestaurants.org, that lists which restaurants are already doing the right thing, and consumers have a lot of power to encourage their favorite restaurants to move to a full minimum wage.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.