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3-Course Interview: Saru Jayaraman 

The co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Center United talks better wages for servers and restaurant employees

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Saru Jayarman is the author of Behind the Kitchen Door and Forked: A New Standard for American Dining, books about servers and restaurant work. She's also the co-founder and co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), which advocates for better wages and working conditions in the industry. ROC United runs socially conscious restaurants in New York and Detroit. Jayaraman recently visited New Orleans, which has a ROC United chapter and is developing a restaurant. She spoke with Gambit about restaurant work for tipped employees.

What do most customers not know about restaurant work?

Jayaraman: The three key things that workers bring up that consumers know nothing about are, one, the fact that it's the largest and fastest growing industry, and a big part of that is the sub-minimum wage. [Tipped workers in Louisiana can be paid $2.13 per hour by their employer.] We do a lot of work on ending the two-tiered wage system. Most people have no idea that there are seven states that have completely eliminated the two-tiered wage system. Tipped workers are paid the same as everybody else, with tips on top.

  The second big issue — that is a huge public health crisis — is that 90 percent of these workers don't have paid sick days. So two-thirds report cooking or serving food to us when they are ill. We have had reports of everything from H1N1 to typhoid fever to hepatitis. People work with all these things because they have no choice — they'll be fired if they don't come to work.

  The third thing that we've done a lot of research on, and shown in New Orleans and across the nation, is a pretty severe racial and gender discrimination and harassment. There is very severe racial segregation in the industry. There's a $4-per-hour wage gap between white workers and workers of color. There's pretty severe segregation in terms of higher-level positions being white, people of color being in lower level positions. In terms of gender, this is the industry with the highest rates of sexual harassment of any industry in the United States. Our research shows that's very closely correlated with the fact that it's a majority female tipped work force that's living off tips and having to tolerate all sorts of behavior to get their money.

What have you learned from ROC United's restaurants?

J: This is our 10th anniversary for Colors in New York. We learned a lot. We've formed a restaurant association of about 175 restaurant owners around the country. We developed close partnerships with high-profile restaurant companies and mom-and-pop restaurants, including in New Orleans. We know that it's a tough business, particularly for small operators but that it can be done, and when you treat your workers well you see far less turnover in an industry with the highest turnover of any industry in the U.S. You see far greater productivity and profitability.

  We did a study with the Cornell University (School of Hotel Administration) which is considered the top hospitality management school in country. We surveyed 1,100 restaurant owners nationally and we showed that you can cut your turnover in half by paying better wages and providing better working conditions. We quantified how much turnover costs. It costs about $13,000 per year for a small operator. That's a lot of money. You really can save and grow your business by investing in your workers up front.

Why does your group advocate for changing the tipped minimum wage?

J: There was a bill introduced in the Louisiana Legislature proposing full elimination of the lower minimum wage for tipped workers. That is what we need. The tipped minimum wage is a legacy of slavery. Slaves were the first tipped workers. After the emancipation of slaves, the restaurant industry argued that they should have the right to not pay these workers because they were seen as valueless human beings — let them live on customer tips. That idea was codified into the very first minimum wage bill under [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] as part of the New Deal. Over the past century since that was passed, we have gone from a zero dollar minimum wage in the first minimum wage bill to a $2.13 minimum wage — so a $2 increase over 100 years.

  Over that period, the restaurant industry has argued that there is no reason to pay these workers a (higher) wage. They paint the picture of a white guy working in the French Quarter in a fine dining restaurant. The truth is that 70 percent of these workers are women; they're women of color. They're women working at IHOP, 40 percent are mothers. A good percentage are single moms. They suffer three times the poverty rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce. They use food stamps at double the rate of the U.S. workforce. That means the women who put food on our tables can't afford to feed their own families. As consumers, we are doubly subsidizing this industry. We pay for its workers wages through our tips and we pay for their survival through taxpayer-funded public assistance. Nationally, we spend $16.5 billion annually in public assistance for restaurant workers — that industry alone. We almost completely subsidize the business model of this industry. It is time to ask ourselves if this model works.

  There are plenty of restaurants that are showing they can do it differently. It is such a ripe time for folks in New Orleans to follow the pathway set by Danny Meyer, Tom Colicchio and Alice Waters and so many other great restaurant employers across the country paving a different path. There is so much innovation in the New Orleans industry now, it's a great time.

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