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All workers deserve a fair wage, Says Saru Jayaraman, winner of James Irvine Leadership award

“We are seeing a historic moment, a moment of worker revolt, in which low-wage workers across the economy, and particularly in the restaurant industry, are for the first time refusing to work for poverty wages,” says Saru Jayaraman, founder and president of One Fair Wage.

Saru Jayaraman, founder of One Fair Wage. (photo courtesy of One Fair Wage)

SAN FRANCISCO, California — The restaurant industry collectively is one of the largest employers in the US: more than 14 million work in the sector, and the majority of employers and employees are people of color. For immigrants, documented or undocumented, food service provides an easy entry into the labor force, albeit with long hours and low pay.

Restaurant workers are among the lowest-paid employees on the food chain, often with salaries as low as $2.13 per hour. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. However, restaurant employers are allowed to compute a worker’s tips as part of their wages and are therefore can pay tipped workers less than minimum wage.

Several attempts have been made to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, but those attempts have failed. Washington, California, Connecticut and Massachusetts are the only states that have a minimum wage at or beyond $15 per hour. MIT’s Living Wage Calculator finds that no state offers a minimum wage that is in line with the living wage.

Post-pandemic, however, employees are fighting back and demanding fair wages.

“We are seeing a historic moment, a moment of worker revolt, in which low-wage workers across the economy, and particularly in the restaurant industry, are for the first time refusing to work for these poverty wages,” says Saru Jayaraman, founder and president of One Fair Wage.

“Millions of low wage workers are saying: ‘you know what: we're not going to do it anymore.”

At the start of the pandemic, several restaurants moved to takeout and delivery only, as mandated “shelter at home” orders went into effect throughout the US. As sales went down, so did the tips, which restaurant workers currently rely on to make a sustainable living.

“Sexual harassment, which was already the highest in our industry of any industry, went way up. Thousands of women told us: ‘I'm regularly asked ‘take off your mask so I can see how cute you are before I decide how much to tip you.’”

“As a result of this kind of behavior for very little tips and very low wages, 1.2 million workers have left the restaurant industry and 60% of workers who remain say they are leaving. Almost 80% say the only thing that would make them stay or come back is a full livable wage with tips on top,” said Jayaraman at an April 7 news briefing organized by Ethnic Media Services.

Faced with an unprecedented labor shortage, restaurants have been forced to raise wages. In San Francisco, which boasts one of the highest incomes per capita in the nation, restaurants are paying $35 per hour base salaries, and workers keep their tips. Other restaurants are trying out no-tip policies, with the cost of wages built into the price of the meal.

“As a result of this huge revolt in the industry and upheaval we are winning policy across the country to raise wages and end sub-minimum wages,” said the community leader, who founded One Fair Wage in 2019. “For the first time since emancipation, workers are refusing to work for these poverty wages, and it is resulting in policy change in a number of states across the country.”

One Fair Wage is active in 25 states, and currently driving the 25 by 250 campaign, an effort to end sub-minimum wages in 25 states by 2026.

Jayaraman was announced Feb. 13 as one of seven recipients of the James Irvine Foundation Leadership Awards. Jayaraman is the second Indian American to receive the honor: Naindeep Singh received the award last year for his work with the Jakara Movement, a youth leadership development organization focused on the Punjabi Sikh population in California’s Central Valley.

The annual awards are given to six leaders working to create sustainable change in California through grassroots initiatives.  Each recipient’s organization receives a $250,000 grant to support their work that benefits the people of California and merits expansion, replication, or policy support. The Irvine Foundation also helps recipients share their approaches with policymakers and practitioners.

“The California Way means finding new solutions to big problems, and that’s exactly what these leaders have demonstrated through their innovative work to tackle homelessness, climate change and other challenges facing our state,” said California Governor Gavin Newsom, as the award was announced. “Thank you to The James Irvine Foundation for its commitment to lifting up the impactful work of community leaders across our state to build a more vibrant, inclusive and resilient California.”

This year’s winners included leaders working to end California’s crisis of homelessness, advocates for criminal justice reform, human rights, education, food insecurity, and climate change.

Jayaraman, the daughter of Indian immigrants, grew up in Southern California. Her biography notes that she was “keenly aware of the dynamics faced by immigrants and low-paid workers, including substandard conditions and limited respect for their labor.”

The attorney is also the director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley. She started her career in the food labor space after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks: she worked with displaced World Trade Center workers to co-found the Restaurant Opportunities Center, which grew into a national movement of restaurant workers, employers and consumers.  Her work was profiled in the film “Waging Change.”

Jayaraman is also the recipient of the Ashoka fellowship in 2013 and the Soros Equality Fellowship in 2020.