According to Restaurant Opportunities Centers United
, a nonprofit organization and worker center that supports and connects restaurant workers throughout the country, more than 13 million U.S. residents, the majority of them women of color, are employed in restaurants. In 18 states, they earn a base pay of $2.13 an hour plus tips, a sub-minimum wage that has been frozen since 1991. Twenty-six states pay a somewhat higher sub-minimum, while just seven — Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington — provide the full federal minimum to those who serve our food when we dine out.
This leaves hundreds of thousands of workers in poverty.
in New York City alone, a winter 2019 survey
conducted by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and the Community Service Society found that 36 percent of tipped workers employed in eateries, nail salons and car washes lived at or below the federal poverty line — $16,460 for a two-person household; $25,100 for four — and more often than not, had to rely on food stamps, soup kitchens and Medicaid. New York is not an anomaly.
The Economic Policy Institute found that in states that allow payment of a sub-minimum wage, 18.5 percent of workers are impoverished; in states where everyone earns the federal minimum, the poverty rate drops to 11.1 percent. Furthermore, the institute notes that closing the loophole in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 that allows payment of a sub-minimum wage, and upping the hourly minimum to $15 by 2024, would boost the wages of 38.1 percent of African American and 23.2 percent of white workers.
Restaurant Opportunities Centers United is supporting the Raise the Wage Act, H.R.582, legislation to abolish the sub-minimum wage and bring tipped workers up to the federal standard.
Anthony Advincula, public affairs officer at Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, points out that industry lobbyists, National Restaurant Association and , have been effective in undermining One Fair Wage campaigns by claiming H.R.582 would stifle new job creation, impose undue harm to the nation’s small business owners, and harm those it proclaims to help
“They’ve created a fake grassroots organization, called Restaurant Workers of America, to invoke fear that restaurants will close and jobs will be eliminated,” Advincula says. “The truth is that the industry does not want to eliminate the sub-minimum wage because it will cost them. But this is a racial and gender justice issue. The majority of workers who are exploited by the sub-minimum wage are immigrants, people of color and single mothers who live in poverty despite working full-time.”
An in-depth investigation by the Columbia Journalism Review confirms that Restaurant Workers of America is wholly funded by restaurant owners. In addition, the investigation found that its representatives have missed few opportunities to appear with “restaurant industry trade groups and Republican politicians” since coming together in 2017.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has the authority to instruct the commissioner of labor to end the sub-minimum wage — something he said he intended to do. Instead, he has listened to the Restaurant Workers of America and the National Restaurant Association who presented restaurant workers arguing that no, they don’t need an increase in the minimum wage, that things are fine as they are.
Diana Ramirez is the senior policy advocate at Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, also explained, “The rate of sexual harassment for restaurant workers is the highest of any industry,” she says. “The ‘customer is always right’ mentality has made it hard for tipped workers who have to depend on the generosity of patrons.”
A broad coalition of women’s rights, labor and racial justice groups came together in 2016 in support of One Fair Wage — coalition members ranged from the D.C. chapter of the National Organization for Women, to Forward Together, the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, the Democratic Socialists of America, and Jews United For Justice. The goal was to put a One Fair Wage measure — called Initiative 77 — on the July 2018 ballot. Opposition from the Restaurant Workers of America and the National Restaurant Association was immediate. “They got workers, mostly white male bartenders working in high-end establishments, to come out and yell at women of color wherever we went,” Ramirez told Truthout. “It’s a Trumpian effect: Somehow you doing better will make me worse off.”
Despite the pushback, the ballot initiative in Washington, D.C.
, passed with 56 percent of the vote, and voters in all but one neighborhood supported One Fair Wage. But the victory was short-lived. Ramirez points out that after the ballot measure passed, the restaurant association went into high gear and successfully lobbied the D.C. City Council to overturn the measure.
“The Council essentially told Black people, the majority population in D.C., that their vote did not matter,” Ramirez explains. “People were outraged and after the vote was repealed, an influx of racial justice and pro-democracy groups came to Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and said, ‘We want to work with you to protect democracy.’”
A similar fight is unfolding in Michigan. According to the Michigan chapter of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, the lame duck session voted to raise the state’s overall minimum incrementally, not getting to $12.05 an hour until 2030. Their raise to the sub-minimum was even paltrier: They raised it by seven cents an hour, from $3.52 to $3.59, effective March 29 of this year. The original measure raised the sub-minimum from $3.52 to $12 by 2024. An editorial in USA Today elaborates further: “Faced with ballot initiatives that would have raised the minimum wage and established sick time for all the state’s workers, Republicans instead passed both proposals last summer as a way to keep them off the ballot and make them easier to change.”