Meet the Food Industry's Fair Wage Crusader - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Meet the Food Industry's Fair Wage Crusader

Meet the Food Industry's Fair Wage Crusader

By Poornima Apte


Because the restaurant industry is America’s fastest growing economic sector — and also among its lowest paying.

By Poornima Apte

When Saru Jayaraman got the call that she’d been invited to walk the red carpet at this year’s Golden Globe Awards with Amy Poehler, she admits she had to look up the Golden Globes. As the president of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a nonprofit championing the cause of America’s 14 million restaurant workers, she was more familiar with commercial kitchens than hotel ballrooms. 

But Jayaraman was grateful to have a national spotlight on an issue that has been at the core of her work: One Fair Wage, an initiative started in 2013 to eliminate tiered and subminimum wage systems for restaurant workers by advancing ballot measures across the country. More recently, in response to the Harvey Weinstein revelations and the #MeToo movement, a group of actresses, including Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, joined the effort and spoke out in solidarity with restaurant workers, who are prime targets for sexual harassment. They called on other actresses to take part in the coalition — out of which grew the partnership with Amy Poehler.

We went from zero dollars in 1938 [when the federal minimum wage first became law] to $2.13 an hour in 2018. So it’s a $2 increase over, basically, 100 years.

Saru Jayaraman

Such partnerships are not new to Jayaraman. Sarita Gupta, the executive director of Jobs With Justice, experienced it full on when the Trump administration nominated Andrew Puzder, a fast food executive with a history of alleged labor violations and spousal abuse, as labor secretary. Gupta, who had collaborated with Jayaraman for years, reached out for ideas on how to derail Puzder’s nomination. Jayaraman helped Gupta gather names of women for a sit-in that would disrupt the Senate hearing if it came to that. It didn’t (he withdrew his nomination). The key takeaway for Gupta? Jayaraman is not afraid to take direct action.


Social justice has galvanized the 42-year-old daughter of politically progressive parents since she was young and living in a working-class Chicano/Latino neighborhood in Southern California. “My friends and their families were restaurant, custodial, construction workers,” Jayaraman tells OZY. “I saw a lot of injustice in the way that we were all treated and the low expectations that were set for us.” Jayaraman defied those low expectations by earning her bachelor’s degree from UCLA, in political science and development studies, followed by a master’s in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a law degree from Yale. Today, Jayaraman is also director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California Berkeley, which feeds much of the academic research that fuels ROC.

As an undergrad, Jayaraman remembers visiting India and flirting briefly with the idea of working for a nonprofit abroad. In short order she realized it would be much more effective to bring about change in the belly of the beast. “They told me, ‘We need you to work in the country that is oppressing all of us … to set the standard there,’ ” Jayaraman says.

That change started when she took a job as an attorney at the Workplace Project, a Long Island nonprofit that organizes Latina and Latino immigrant workers and their families to fight for better working and living conditions. Then 9/11 hit. Jayaraman learned that more than 70 workers at the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center had died and hundreds more had been displaced. A waiter at the restaurant, Fekkak Mamdouh, was hired by the local branch of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union to staff a temporary operation known as the Immigrant Worker Assistance Alliance. When that shut down, Jayaraman and Mamdouh co-founded Restaurant Opportunities Centers United in 2002. The New York–based nonprofit has grown into a national organization with a membership of over 25,000 workers, 500 restaurant owners and 23,000 consumer members in 10 states.

ROC initially adopted a multipronged approach — conducting research, job training workers and litigating cases — but eventually decided to corral its energies into the One Fair Wage campaign push. Its basic premise: Restaurants must pay workers the full minimum wage and tips can add to that base.

It’s an issue that Jayaraman discusses animatedly. “We went from zero dollars in 1938 [when the federal minimum wage first became law] to $2.13 an hour in 2018. So it’s a $2 increase over, basically, 100 years,” she says. “Today, 70 percent of tipped workers in the U.S. are women. They’re women who suffer from three times the poverty rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce, even when you take tips into account. Worst of all, they suffer from the highest rates of sexual harassment of any industry in the US because, when you’re a woman who lives on tips, you have to tolerate all kinds of inappropriate customer behavior to feed your family.”

Carol Wood, a director at Homebase, an HR solutions company, agrees that Jayaraman’s cause is noble, but she points out that many restaurants are small businesses and labor is a significant portion of their expenses. And when these smaller restaurants try to compete against larger chains that enjoy economies of scale, any move to boost wages will invariably result in the consumer footing the bill. Jayaraman rejects that argument: “We’ve done a lot of research to show that what we’re proposing actually helps restaurants’ bottom line, because you can cut your turnover in half by providing higher wages and better benefits to workers.”

Predictably, the National Restaurant Association, whose primary mission is to champion over 500,000 restaurant businesses, has tried to subvert ROC’s message. “They have the money and the power, they try to shut us down, they intimidate us by spreading misinformation and lies trying to get workers into thinking that [we are] not a good idea,” Jayaraman says.

Despite the pushback, the picture is looking rosy, starting with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement in September that he will support One Fair Wage in the state. This year, One Fair Wage is on the ballots in D.C. and Michigan and polling well in both places. Next stop: the rest of the country.

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