Restaurant Workers Say They Won’t Return to Work Without a Living Wage

On May 20, 2021, about 50 service worker leaders at One Fair Wage, an organization I lead that brings together service workers to demand a living wage, gathered to take an official vote on whether to go on a “wage strike.” Some workers had already left the restaurant industry and were considering not returning, and some had stayed, doing the work of two or even three workers in understaffed environments. All were united in their determination not to continue to work for anything less than a full, living wage — plus tips.

“When the pandemic hit, I was furloughed. I tried to get unemployment, but my subminimum wage was too low to qualify,” said Ifeoma Ezimako, an African American server from Washington, D.C. who became a leader with One Fair Wage right after pandemic-related shutdowns began last year. “My real issue is that tips are supposed to be extra. It’s not the customer’s obligation to pay us. So the fact that the employer is not giving the customer that obligation, and the customer knows this, that’s where sexual harassment comes in.”

Ezimako told fellow service worker organizers of her experiences working at a local bar during the strike vote, saying that drunk customers would make unreasonable demands of her. “I felt obligated to do certain things because I’m like, ‘This is how I’m getting paid,’” she said. “But when I leave work, I have to feel right about myself. So I thank God for the pandemic because it made me stop and think, ‘This isn’t right. This isn’t right at all.’”

After Ezimako and other service workers spoke out during the strike vote in states across the country, including New Hampshire, Michigan, Illinois, New York, D.C. and California, One Fair Wage voted unanimously to conduct the strike this week, agreeing not to return to work until employers paid them a base living wage, plus tips.

“It’s not that we’re being lazy. We just want to be paid for the services we actually have. I stand with One Fair Wage because that’s all we want. Ultimately, that’s really what it comes down to. We’re not going back to work until we get one fair wage, or we’re going to find other work to do,” Paris Singeltary, a host and server from Michigan, told members and organizers during the vote.

But although restaurant owners, elected officials and the media seem to only now be discovering restaurant workers’ unwillingness to work for poverty wages, their demands are nothing new: This week’s strike is the third national work stoppage service workers affiliated with One Fair Wage have called over the last year.

The pandemic has created both the most devastating crisis ever experienced in the modern U.S. restaurant industry and the greatest opportunity for building worker power. This has come to a head in what many are calling a mass “worker shortage” — what we at One Fair Wage are calling a “wage shortage” and a moment of vastly increased worker leverage.

Prior to the pandemic, with 13.5 million workers, the restaurant industry was one of the largest and fastest-growing sectors of the U.S. economy while also being one of its lowest-paying. The industry’s low wages can be attributed almost entirely to the money and power of the National Restaurant Association, which we call “the other NRA,” and which is driven by the nation’s largest corporate restaurant chains: Olive Garden’s parent company Darden, Denny’s, IHOP/Applebee’s, and many more.

The other NRA was formed over 100 years ago explicitly to fight wage increases for restaurant workers. During emancipation, restaurant owners who eventually formed the other NRA sought to hire Black workers as a way to justify not paying a living wage, transforming the practice of tipping from an added bonus, as it had originally been, to becoming a replacement for wages. This has resulted in tipped workers, disproportionately women and women of color, receiving a federal subminimum wage of $2.13 an hour, and other subminimum wages in 43 states. Even before the pandemic, tipped workers suffered more than double the poverty rate of other workers as well as the highest rates of sexual harassment of any industry.

With the pandemic, these already dire working conditions became completely unbearable. We at One Fair Wage created a Service Workers Emergency Fund to help support nearly 250,000 workers amid the pandemic. We began organizing this new base, inviting them to participate, speak out in and lead dozens of digital town halls to share their struggles, needs and concerns with elected officials ranging from then-Senator Kamala Harris to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

As summer allowed for greater in-person events, we began staging strikes and actions to call for living wages and working conditions in the restaurant industry. During these town halls and actions, thousands of workers shared their struggles amid the pandemic: Over 6 million restaurant workers reported losing their jobs during the initial shutdowns, and 60 percent reported facing challenges in obtaining unemployment benefits because their subminimum wages were too low to qualify for benefits in most states, according to One Fair Wage’s surveys of workers who participated in the town halls and actions.

When millions returned to work in summer 2020, 66 percent reported that tips had declined by 50-75 percent while health risks, hostility and sexual harassment had increased. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the University of California San Francisco named restaurants the most dangerous place to work: Workers were now asked to enforce social-distancing and mask-wearing rules on the very same customers from whom they were supposed to obtain most of their wage, resulting in being tipped even less. Half of the women surveyed reported sexual harassment increased during the pandemic, with hundreds of women submitting comments detailing how male customers asked them to remove their masks in order to judge their looks — and their tips — on that basis.

Amid health risks, declining tips, and increased hostility and harassment, it should come as no surprise that millions of restaurant workers were already leaving the industry before this spring. In May 2021, One Fair Wage released a report based on 3,000 surveys of restaurant workers nationwide on why they were leaving the industry. The report largely confirmed what we already knew: Over half (53 percent) of all workers reported that they are considering leaving their restaurant jobs, with 76 percent saying their considerations are due to low wages and tips, and 78 percent reporting that their top reason to stay or return would be a living base wage. Workers told us that in many cases, with a subminimum wage of less than $5 an hour and declining tips, it costs them more for transportation to get to work than what they earn on the job.

While we had been hearing these stories from workers over past year, employers, elected officials, and media seemed surprised by the simultaneous unemployment/underemployment and lack of willingness to fill poverty-wage jobs in the restaurant sector. The issue was really exposed when governors started allowing restaurants to reopen at full capacity, and many restaurants found they could not actually do so for lack of staffing. When these restaurants attempted to open for greater capacity anyway, their overworked and underpaid workforces walked out en masse. Restaurant walkouts spread like wildfire, shutting down businesses across the country. One Fair Wage’s recent strike vote orients the leverage that those walkouts have created around particular demands for a living, base wage of at least $15 an hour, and increased worker power and voice on the job.

One of Ezimako’s colleagues, restaurant worker Tizoc Zarate, spoke eloquently about how the pandemic developed his leadership, telling service organizers during the strike vote that now more than ever is the time to stand up to the restaurant industry’s greed and make the voices of restaurant workers heard. “Far too many people are under the assumption that tips are a reliable source of income. It turns out the majority of people who believe that have never worked in the industry. We are supposed to take our jobs seriously as professional servers and cooks, but whenever we mess up, or take too long to bring their ketchup, customers are so quick to say, ‘How hard can it be?’ and it’s a slap in the face, because at the end of the day, you’re expected to put up with customers who harass us,” he said.

He told worker organizers that before he got laid off from the last restaurant he worked for, there were days he went home with only $30 after a seven-hour shift. There was no hourly wage, little to no COVID protections and only two servers working. After being laid off, he says he didn’t receive his check for two months. “The pandemic has demonstrated how critical our role is in society. Corporations are begging their workers to return to work, [and] politicians are starting to listen, but most importantly, we are coming together to protest and speak out against this injustice. So, let’s keep on fighting because I believe we can and will win the fight for fair wages,” he told worker organizers.

While some seem to be willfully ignoring these workers’ voices, others are finally hearing them. While Republicans and eight Democratic senators are hearing only the other NRA’s ever-constant claim that they can’t possibly raise wages and stay open, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Bobby Scott have responded by pushing the Raise the Wage Act. Backed by President Joe Biden, House Democrats and 42 Senate Democrats, the bill would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour over several years and phase out the subminimum wage for tipped workers, workers with disabilities, and youth, providing restaurant workers with the base living wage they’re demanding.

While the debate has raged all year, the new realization that workers will simply not return to work without one fair wage has changed the tenor of the debate, creating new urgency that this week’s wage strikes reinforce. Elected officials are realizing they have to raise wages or face a stalled recovery. Independent restaurants are beginning to raise their wages on their own, even joining with workers to call for policy change to even the playing field. Likewise, consumers are realizing they can’t enjoy their Sunday brunches the way they used to unless wages rise.

As with other historical moments of seismic economic disruptions, this crisis must be resolved through higher wages and greater worker power, or we will all suffer.