Saru Jayaraman on Justice for Restaurant Workers

Activist Saru Jayaraman marches with restaurant workers struggling to make ends meet, and talks about how we can best support their right to a fair wage.

Activist and author Saru Jayaraman marches on Washington with restaurant workers struggling to make ends meet, and talks about how we can best support their right to a fair wage. Jayaraman is the co-founder and co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, which works to improve pay and working conditions for America’s 10 million-plus restaurant workers. She is also the author of Behind the Kitchen Door, a new exposé of the restaurant industry.

“It’s an incredible irony that the people who put food on our tables use food stamps at twice the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce — meaning that the people who put food on our tables can’t afford to put food on their own family’s tables,” says Jayaraman. “They don’t use food stamps because they want to; they use food stamps because their wages are so low and they face higher levels of food insecurity than other workers… they can’t afford to eat.”


Bill Moyers: You heard Richard Wolff say there are very good reasons to be angry at capitalism’s takeover of democracy, but, he went on to say, don’t write off the democratic impulse that is at the heart of the American promise. It can break out anytime, anywhere.

Here’s an example. The day after President Obama’s State of the Union, restaurant employees marched on Capitol Hill in support of a fair deal for workers who live by customer tips.

Protesters: What we want, is justice in our industry!

Bill Moyers: Although those tips are often meager or non-existent, for the past 22 years, these workers have been stuck at a federal minimum wage of $2.13 an hour.

Protesters: Hey Hey, Ho Ho, $2.13 has got to go!

Bill Moyers: At the head of the march, Saru Jayaraman.

Protesters: Roc United!

Bill Moyers: The organization she co-founded, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, is fighting to improve wages and working conditions for the people who cook and serve the food we eat at restaurants and then clean up when we’re done.

Saru Jayaraman: Because restaurant workers they serve us and they should be able to put food on their own tables…

Bill Moyers: Outside the Capitol, she and the protesters are joined by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut…

Rep. Rosa DeLauro: Storm that Hill, make the difference.

Bill Moyers: Inside, the activists are greeted by Congresswoman Donna Edwards of Maryland, who, with DeLauro, has introduced legislation raising the minimum wage for tipped workers.

Rep. Donna Edwards: I know that when I waited tables, I didn’t just do it because I needed some extra change. I did it because I had to pay my rent. I did it because I had to make sure that I had food in my refrigerator. I did it because I needed transportation to get back and forth to school. It was a job.

Bill Moyers: Saru Jayaraman’s new book “Behind the Kitchen Door” is an insider’s expose of what it’s really like to work at the lowest rungs of the restaurant industry.

Saru Jayaraman: There are actually now over 10 million restaurant workers in the United States. So seven of the ten lowest paying jobs in America are restaurant jobs, and the two absolute lowest paying jobs in America are restaurant: dishwashers and fast food preps and cooks are the two absolute lowest paying jobs in America. These workers earn poverty wages because the minimum wage for tipped workers at the federal level has been frozen for 22 years at $2.13 an hour, and it’s the reason that food servers use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce, and have a poverty rate of three times the rest of the U.S. workforce.

We got to this place because of the power of the National Restaurant Association; we call it the other NRA. They’ve been named the tenth most powerful lobbying group in Congress and back in 1996 when Herman Cain was the head of the National Restaurant Association, he struck a deal with Congress saying that, “We will not oppose the overall minimum wage continuing to rise as long as the minimum wage for tipped workers stays frozen forever,” and so it has for the last 22 years

Now sure, some of them earn tips on top of those wages, but there are plenty of workers, particularly imagine your average server in an IHOP in Texas earning $2.13 an hour, graveyard shift, no tips. The company’s supposed to make up the difference between $2.13 and $7.25 but time and time again that doesn’t happen.

They live on tips, and when slow night happens and you don’t earn anything or very little in tips you often can’t pay the rent. And I guarantee you in every restaurant in America there’s at least one person who’s on the verge of homelessness or being evicted or going through some kind of instability.

It’s an incredible irony that the people that who put food on our tables use food stamps at twice the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce. Meaning that the people who put food on our tables can’t afford to put food on their own family’s tables, and they don’t use food stamps because they want to, they use food stamps because their wages are so low and they face higher levels of what’s called food insecurity than other workers. So they can’t afford to eat!

The other key issue that we find that workers face is the lack of paid sick days and healthcare benefits; two-thirds of all workers report cooking, preparing, and serving food when they’re ill, with the flu or other sicknesses. And with a wage as little as $2.13, so reliant on tips for their wages, these workers simply cannot afford to take a day off when sick, let alone risk losing their jobs.

Ninety percent of foodborne illnesses in the United States, can be traced back to sick restaurant workers. So, you know, it’s common sense, it’s a public health issue, it’s good for the workers, the families, and the small businesses, because our research has shown that when small business actually pays better, provides these benefits, we’ve found they have less turnover, higher productivity, higher profitability.

The majority of workers are adults; many are parents and single parents, single mothers, using the restaurant job as their main source of income, and by the way taking great pride in restaurant work. Really loving being a restaurant worker, hospitality is something people take great pride in and so we need to make this industry professional, the way that other careers are professional. This is not a job that you move on to something else, this is a career for many, many people who stay in this industry for their lifetimes. So people need the opportunity to move up the ladder, to move to better jobs, to be treated like professionals, given a paid sick day, given a wage that they can sustain their families on.

We partner with more than a hundred small business owners around the country who are doing the right thing, providing good, decent wages, better working conditions, paid sick days, benefits, opportunities for advancement. These employers don’t charge exorbitant amounts to their customers, their prices are very comparable to everybody else but they’ve worked it into their business plan and we have them organized into a restaurant industry roundtable and offer assistance, advice, both from them and from us about how any restaurant owner could do better, could provide better wages and not have exorbitant prices. So I think that’s the first thing I would say to a small business owner is, “Look, there are tons of people who are already doing it. We’re here to help you, they’re here to help you try this new way of doing business.”

PROTESTERS: We’re workers united, we can’t be defeated. We’re workers united, we can’t be defeated…

Bill Moyers: Acting on that democratic impulse, Saru Jayaraman and the protesting workers march from Capitol Hill to the Capital Grille steakhouse, owned by one of the biggest restaurant chains in America…

Saru Jayaraman: Eighty-six thousand customers of yours have signed a petition calling on you to pay a minimum of at least five dollars an hour to your workers…cause $2.13 is just not enough to live on. So here you go.

Capital Grille Manager: Thank you.

Saru Jayaraman: Thank you.

Bill Moyers: A final thought: Watching those workers, it occurs to me that a capitalist system that no longer meets most people’s needs simply cannot last. It may survive for a time by fraud, farce or force, but once the capacity or the will for self-correction has been lost, so, too, is lost its reason to be, except to enrich the few at the expense of the many. Sooner or later the oppressive thumb of the One Percent has to be lifted — either voluntarily removed, or severed by public anger and popular will. For the moment, those restaurant workers still believe in democracy — still believe they can undo politically what predatory capitalism has done to them economically; still believe their cry for justice will be heard. And if it isn’t, what then are their choices? What would you do?

Tell us at our website, You’ll also find more about Saru Jayaraman and her call to take action for fair pay and better conditions for restaurant workers. And, send us your questions for Richard Wolff.

That’s all at I’ll see you there, and I’ll see you here, next time.

Interview Producer: Lauren Feeney. Editor: Rob Kuhns. Associate Producer: Reniqua Allen.