How the Restaurant Industry Viciously Exploits Its Workers, From Wage Theft to Sexual Abuse
The new documentary “Waging Change” explores how the restaurant world takes cruel advantage of its employees.
For labor organizers working within the restaurant industry, there’s another NRA: the National Restaurant Association. This NRA “represent[s] and advocate[s] on behalf of more than 500,000 restaurant businesses,” including some of the biggest chains in the country. For decades, this has meant keeping tipped workers earning a minimum of $2.13 an hour in 43 states (in California, where I live, tipped workers must earn at least the state-wide minimum wage of $12.00 per hour for employers with 25 or fewer employees and $13.00 per hour for employers with more than 25 employees). During the COVID-19 pandemic, when many restaurant and cafe workers are realizing that they are much better off financially leaving their jobs and collecting unemployment insurance, there’s a renewed focus on how service work is systemically devalued in the U.S.
The so-called logic behind this $2.13 tipped worker minimum wage is that tips will meet or exceed the federal minimum wage of $7.25 and, legally speaking, when they don’t, employers must make up the difference. According to many employees in the industry, in practice, the latter almost never happens—the restaurant industry specifically is notorious for wage and tip theft. Throughout the U.S.—excluding West Coast states, Nevada, Montana, Minnesota, and Alaska—if tips aren’t good or are nonexistent, good luck making rent.
In director Abby Ginzberg’s documentary Waging Change, streamable on Women Make Movies from May 22 to May 31, the NRA’s machinations to keep the tipped minimum wage at $2.13 an hour in as many states as possible is exposed for its strategic seediness. In a “Save Our Tips” campaign, the NRA funded an astroturf movement that convinced many restaurant workers that One Fair Wage legislation in Washington, D.C., would compromise their earnings—the idea being that if customers know servers and bartenders are earning the minimum wage or more, they will be less likely to tip or tip well. In fact, studies have shown that in cities where there is one minimum wage across all industries—and when that minimum wage is on the high end of the current spectrum—tipping is much better.
There’s also a prevailing idea that most restaurants cannot afford to pay even the minimum wage, let alone a living wage, and if they did, they would have to lay off many workers. Waging Change goes to small, local restaurants around the country to show that living wage structures and even co-ops (in which the workers own the business) are possible and in fact can improve business. It’s also telling that many of the restaurants with the worst wages and practices are the huge chains, from IHOP to McDonald’s to TGI Friday’s. Even high-end restaurants that charge in the hundreds for a single meal have settled lawsuits for wage theft and other unfair labor practices. In many cases, the problem is at best incompetent management and at worst, greed.
The One Fair Wage movement, which has been backed by bartender-turned-congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also aims to address the rampant sexual harassment and abuse that the tipped minimum wage structure doesn’t simply exacerbate, but provides the foundation for. If servers and bartenders have to make tips to make rent, then they’re especially vulnerable to abuse. According to 20 years of government data reported by BuzzFeed in 2017, more sexual harassment claims are filed in the restaurant industry than in any other industry. And according to a survey by Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC), the labor organization prominently featured in Waging Change, 60 percent of women report that they have experienced some form of sexual harassment on the job, and over half say they experience it on a daily basis. This same study also reports that “one-fifth of women working in the restaurant industry live below the poverty line, and nearly one-half (46%) live below twice the poverty line, compared to 40% of men in the restaurant industry and 20% of women in other industries.”
One strategy proposed—beyond the organizing that restaurant workers do with ROC and other organizations to spur legislative change—is to vote with your wallet, to only patronize business that pay workers a living wage both in the front and back of house (racism in the restaurant industry is also rampant, with bussers, dishwashers, and prep cooks often being black and brown, and servers, hosts, and bartenders usually being white). But voting with your wallet often means relying on restaurant marketing to “know” who is treating their workers fairly; now that touting fair labor practices—like “sustainability” in the fashion industry—is trendy, it’s hard to know who is just talking the talk. In fact, supporting labor organizations, unions, and campaigns run by restaurant workers themselves is often the most direct way to either vote with your wallet or actions. (You’d also do well to tip in cash, a more reliable way to ensure your server and other workers in the restaurant actually get your tip, and quickly.)
Waging Change addresses the curveball thrown by coronavirus on the gains made by the One Fair Wage and $15 minimum wage movements, since many restaurant workers have been furloughed or laid off due to restaurant shutdowns. The documentary points out that are relief funds for those workers ineligible for unemployment insurance (because, cruelly enough, they earn too little to qualify), and as inequity in the U.S. is sharply revealed through this crisis, workers are still protesting for fair wages, including hazard pay and sick leave.
But what coronavirus has made clear is how unnecessary worker vulnerability is. In many other countries, robust social safety nets—with free health care, well-appointed public housing, free university, free childcare, and more—mean that even in hard times, workers can still pay the bills and businesses are more incentivized to provide good compensation and working conditions to retain staff (the reality, however, is usually much different for “unskilled” immigrant workers, who are not often provided social benefits no matter where they go). But in the U.S., where business lobbies like the other NRA hold enormous power and regular people are dependent on whatever wages these businesses decide to hand out—anything that might compromise this precarious arrangement, even when it’s as justified as public health protocol, compromises us.
As a result, social welfare is looked down upon, and both local and federal governments typically do all they can to make those benefits hard to receive and insufficient for a decent quality of life. To wage change, we’ll also have to look beyond the wage itself.