The food service workers had gone three years without a raise.
Before the pandemic, nearly 14 million people worked in the restaurant industry. Because the crisis hit restaurants so hard, that number today is closer to 11 million – and the plight of restaurant workers has not improved.
Clearly, the Covid-19 pandemic has decimated the restaurant industry. Nearly all restaurant workers have experienced a dramatic change in their job status, resulting in job and income losses, and thrusting millions of workers and their families into poverty.
As the economy recovers, we need to revitalize the restaurant industry. But just as importantly, we need to make sure workers in this industry and other essential workers and their families can live with dignity. There are over one million tipped restaurant workers in states that allow employers to pay the federal minimum of only $2.13 an hour, which won’t even allow a worker to buy a box of bubble gum. The subminimum wage for tipped workers exacerbates the economic impacts of sexism and racism. Higher wages, on the other hand, help narrow race and gender gaps.
The living wage for a single adult with one child in the United States is $31.90, while the prevailing wage for a restaurant worker is just under $13. More than half of mothers working in the restaurant industry are single mothers.
Dr. Sekou Siby, ROC United rally on Capitol Hill, March 1, 2022.
It is vital that we understand what a living wage actually represents–a fine line between financial independence and poverty with dependence on public assistance, including housing and food insecurity.
Faced with almost impossible choices, restaurant workers find themselves on the wrong side of that line. Because of low wages, restaurant workers live in poverty at nearly three times the rate of the overall workforce, and they access food stamps and Medicaid at nearly twice the rate.
Poverty wages are not the only challenges. Unpredictable schedules, no paid sick leave, no paid time off to recharge, no retirement benefits, no paid parental leave, no access to affordable childcare, wage theft, unsafe working conditions, and racial and gender discrimination are common injustices that restaurant workers often face.
The public health crisis we have been living in exacerbated restaurant workers’ dire situation. In 2020 and 2021, my organization, ROC United, surveyed more than 1,000 restaurant workers. The findings are stark.
About 85 percent of restaurant workers experienced wage loss during the pandemic, and 91 percent received no compensation for working in hazardous conditions. Additionally, 34 percent had no access to personal protective equipment, and 10 percent were forced to go to work while COVID-positive due to a lack of paid sick leave–they both couldn’t afford to take the time off and feared employer retaliation.
For a brief moment, at the beginning of the pandemic, this nation came together and we saw a glimpse of what the future could look like: a future where restaurant workers and all essential workers are appreciated and cared for.
To fulfill that vision, we need a Restaurant Workers Bill of Rights, a comprehensive policy framework that is necessary to systematically address the challenges, injustices, and discrimination that restaurant workers, especially BIPOC and women, face every day.
Over the last three months, about 70 of our member-workers put together a concept centered on a number of essential demands, including a thriving life, time for healing and rest, a safe and dignified work environment, universal healthcare and bodily autonomy, and participation in governance.
Over the next six months, ROC United is planning a robust, 50-state outreach to our 65,000+ members, other restaurant workers, organizations active in workers’ rights and the labor movement, and people who have an interest in working towards an equitable, just, healthy, and prosperous society.
By Labor Day of this year, ROC United plans to introduce the first Restaurant Workers Bill of Rights, accompanied by model local, state, and federal legislation that policymakers can introduce in their own communities and in the U.S. Congress.
2022 is the Year of Workers. Tens of thousands of restaurant workers are joining workers in other industries in solidarity and action to build a movement, organize, empower themselves, and demand from both industry and our elected officials transformative policy that will help our communities thrive.