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Saru Jayaraman: The Advocate for American Restaurant Workers is Erin Brockovich and Norma Rae Rolled Into One

Saru Jayaraman: The Advocate for American Restaurant Workers is Erin Brockovich and Norma Rae Rolled Into One

  • In her new book, the Indian American attorney, author, and activist talks about immigrant workers — in particular, women of color — who are vulnerable to sexual harassment and how more South Asian restaurant owners are turning allies in the fight.

In her latest book, “One Fair Wage: Ending Subminimum Pay in America,” restaurant worker advocate Saru Jayaraman turns her attention to subminimum wages. She highlights the stories of tipped workers in various sectors — restaurants and nail salons, as well as gig workers, incarcerated workers, workers with disabilities and youth — who all receive a subminimum wage, which is “a direct legacy of slavery.”

Subminimum wage was created to allow employers to pay certain employees below their state’s mandated minimum wage. “While the regular minimum wage has not been raised since 2009 when it was set to $7.25, the tipped minimum has been stuck at $2.13 since 1991, losing almost half its value to inflation over the past 30 years,” The Center for American Progress notes. 

Jayaraman, who is a kind of Erin Brockovich and Norma Rae rolled into one, is considered one of the most powerful and important figures in the restaurant world. She is the president of One Fair Wage and director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. In the restaurant industry, the 46-year-old mother of two has come to be known as a relentless advocate for workers’ rights, gradually transitioning from a behind-the-scenes power player to a national leader.

For the past 20 years, the Indian American attorney, author, and activist from Los Angeles has been organizing and advocating for raising wages and working conditions for restaurant and other service workers. She has made a mission out of giving a louder voice to workers, especially women and people of color, “two groups that have been shown to be marginalized in the restaurant industry,” The San Francisco Chronicle noted in its profile on Jayaraman. 

After 9/11, together with displaced World Trade Center workers, she co-founded the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), which grew into a national movement of restaurant workers, employers and consumers. She then launched One Fair Wage as a national campaign to end all subminimum wages in the U.S.

The ROC created the Raise the Wage Act of 2019, along with the National Employment Law Project, which was introduced in Congress this year. It would increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.55 this year and reduce many workers’ reliance on tips. Over the next five years, it would rise to $15 per hour by 2024.

In 2014, ROC published a study called “The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry,” which is recognized as one of the most in-depth reports of the industry’s problems.

The daughter of South Indian parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Tamil Nadu, Jayaraman was raised in Whittier, outside of Los Angeles. She grew in a predominantly Chicano-Latino community, which was “a blue-collar place, filled with working-class families,” the Chronicle profile noted. 

At UCLA, she founded a nonprofit to help empower young women called Women and Youth Supporting Each Other. Yale Law School followed, as did studies at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Upon completion, she worked at a center for immigrant workers on Long Island, New York. 

The daughter of South Indian parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Tamil Nadu, Jayaraman was raised in Whittier, outside of Los Angeles. She grew in a predominantly Chicano-Latino community, which was “a blue-collar place, filled with working-class families.”

In a Zoom chat with American Kahani, Jayaraman discussed how the subminimum wage has become a life-threatening issue because of the pandemic; the plight of tipped workers, their struggles during the pandemic; and how more and more South Asian restaurant owners are turning allies in the fight. 

Unstable Livelihoods

Tipped workers are subject to incredibly unstable livelihoods, and most at-risk among them are immigrant workers and in particular women of color, as they are vulnerable to sexual harassment and even assault. The situation has affected several thousands of South Asian tipped workers as well. In the chapter on tipped servers, Jayaraman highlights an Indian woman server and bartender in Washington, D.C. “These workers, unsurprisingly, were among the most vulnerable workers during the pandemic.”

Before the pandemic, more than six million people earned their living as tipped workers in the service industry. And because they were expected to earn tips, their wages were only $2.13 an hour, leaving them with next to nothing to get by. “It’s been a source of poverty, economic instability and sexual harassment for tipped workers all over the country, who are overwhelmingly women.”

Foreign-born workers made up 10 percent of the restaurant workforce in 1980; this number grew to 25 percent by 2010. Nearly one out of four workers in the restaurant industry are now foreign-born, and tipped restaurant workers who were foreign-born grew from 9 percent to 19 percent in that same period. Estimates from the Pew Hispanic Center suggest that up to half of these workers are undocumented.

And as businesses across the country closed down or drastically scaled back their services, hundreds of thousands lost their jobs. Although there were issues with the subminimum wage before the pandemic, Jayaraman spotlights several things that came to the forefront in the past 18 months. “As in many other areas, the pandemic exposed the inadequacies of the nation’s social safety net and minimum-wage standards.”

A lot of tipped workers lost their jobs due to the pandemic. They were unable to get unemployment insurance “because in most states they were told that their subminimum wage was too low to qualify for benefits and that their tips didn’t count toward benefits.”

A few months later when some of them did return to work as restaurants started opening up, they found that “tips went way down because sales were down.” But, “the customer hostility went way up” and a lot of women reported that they were regularly asked to take their masks off so the customer could see how cute they were before they decided how much to tip.

 “A lot of these workers have gotten punched, even shot, or abused for trying to enforce social distancing and mask rules,” she says. “And the really impossible situation we have put them in is we are asking them to force those rules on the same customers from whom they have to get tips to survive.” All this has led to thousands of workers leaving the industry. “They say ‘we are done, we cant put up with this anymore,” she adds. Many say they spend more on childcare and transportation than they actually make at their jobs. 

These tipped workers, who have quit their restaurant jobs, “are doing what they can to survive,” she points out. Some are working as Lyft and Uber drivers; some are working in grocery stores. “They are really trying a lot of different options,” she says. “But basically what these workers are saying is that anything or nothing at all is better than working in restaurants.”

See Also

Allies in the Fight 

However, Jayaraman notes that the pandemic affected not only the tipped workers but also South Asian restaurant owners “who are going through the same staffing crisis that every other restaurant is going through.” She says they realize the “very severe problem” of not being able to find enough people and recognize “the solution that you got to raise wages across the board.” But “we can’t ask little South Asian restaurant owners to do it on their own,” she adds, “it’s got to be a policy, so everybody has to do it across the board.”

Traditionally, a lot of South Asian restaurant owners have not been supportive of raising wages, Jayaraman notes, adding that she is seeing a shift among them as seen among all restaurant owners. “I think all restaurant owners are changing their mind on this issue because right now everybody’s come to realize that there’s no way they can get enough staff unless they offer a livable wage,” she says. “So a lot of people who opposed this in the past are now paying this in order to get workers to come back to work.”

She acknowledges the few South Asian restaurant owners who have been supportive of raising wages for a long time, like Vilma Rajendran, who owns Vimla’s CurryBlossom Cafe in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She was profiled in “Forked,” Jayaraman’s previous book. “She’s been supportive of raising wages for a real long time.”

The Road Ahead

Jayaraman, who has been championing the legislation for years, is hopeful about the Raise the Wage Act, noting that it “actually has been a big priority for President Biden,” Jayaraman mentions that the president had named it as part of his campaign platform. “He had actually included it in his first Covid relief package but it got cut out,” she adds. But as “the Congress has been a mess with this Build Back better plan,” she and her team have now been focusing on the individual states. 

“New York and D.C. will send the subminimum wage for tipped workers very shortly, in the next few months,” she says. There are bills pending in Massachusetts, Illinois, Michigan and Maine as well, to end the subminimum wage for tipped workers. “I think we are going to see a lot more states follow in the months to come only because you are now seeing so many restaurant owners join forces with workers to say that we do have to raise the wage through policy, otherwise we are not going to be able to get enough workers to fully reopen.”

Tipped workers in only seven states — Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington — receive the full minimum wage because those states have chosen to pay an equal wage to both tipped and non-tipped workers.

When Jayaraman and her team visit states across the country, they see workers “that are standing up and saying that they don’t want to do this anymore.” And so Jayaraman and her team are “lifting up their stories,” doing press events and rallies. “But what is most interesting is that we are having employers – restaurant owners — now join us in saying this is not going to work.” 

There is resistance from elected officials — mostly Republicans, who are “less likely to support raising the wages,” she notes. “But among the populous, people generally support raising wages regardless of their political affiliation.”

She cites the last survey they conducted in May, which found that “4 percent of workers who remained in the industry said they were leaving and 78 percent said that the only thing that’ll make them come back is a livable wage with tips on top. “So we only have two choices at this point, either increase the wage or cut the industry in half, because half the workers say they are leaving.” 

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