After nearly two decades of advocacy for restaurant workers, Saru Jayaraman is finally getting a moment in the spotlight – literally. The president and founder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a national organization representing more than 25,000 people who work in the industry, walked the red carpet with actor/comedian Amy Poehler at the Golden Globes in January, and had multiple-Oscar nominee Michelle Williams join a February ROC United press conference marking 2.13 day, the organization’s annual National Day of Action to highlight that the federal minimum wage for tipped workers remains $2.13 an hour.
“We’ve been thrilled at the new opening in changing the conversation,” says Jayaraman, who initially founded ROC United with Fekkak Mamdouh to assist displaced restaurant workers after 9/11. “There’s been this very staunch resistance to change, and suddenly in the last couple of years, there has been a complete turn around.”
“The less control you give women over their tips, the greater the chance of harassment.” -Saru Jayaraman
With the Time’s Up movement encouraging more and more restaurant workers to come forward with stories of sexual harassment, toppling empires in their wake, restaurateurs have suddenly come pounding on Jayaraman’s door, asking for help and training to fix what is so clearly broken. In fact, since Donald Trump was elected president, membership in RAISE, ROC United’s national restaurant employer association, has nearly tripled, from 300 members to 800. The organization offers peer-to-peer networking, as well as guidelines for sustaining profitability while professionalizing the industry, improving wages and work conditions, and raising standards for restaurant workers.
“It’s time for redemption and healing,” Jayaraman says. “We’re finally getting the attention that we’ve needed and the credibility among restaurant owners that what we are saying makes sense and that this is a better way of doing business.”
Oh, and quite possibly becoming the front line solution to solve sexual harassment. Jayaraman notes that the restaurant industry touches a majority of women at a very young age, and teaches them to accept bad behavior as normal.
“What I initially thought was a fairly marginalized population actually impacts everybody in America,” Jayaraman says. “As I got deeper into this work, I realized it even touches my own family. They owned a restaurant in India a long time ago. It touched my friends, my family, my husband’s family – pretty much everyone in the world.”
Harassment, which starts for so many at a young age, has been accepted for far too long, Jayaraman says.
“I have had too many women over the years – senators, actresses, notable women – say, ‘I have been sexually harassed recently in my career and I didn’t do anything about it because it was not as bad as it was when I was a young woman working in restaurants,’” Jayaraman says, noting that half of American adults have worked in the industry. “Which means our industry sets the standard for what is acceptable and tolerable. For young women to believe that’s just the way it is in the workplace is unacceptable.”
Jayaraman says the solution is simple and clear, and could have a ripple effect that goes far beyond the restaurant industry: eliminate the tipped minimum wage in favor of one wage for all workers. ROC United’s new report, Better Wages, Better Tips: Restaurants Flourish With One Fair Wage, finds that in the seven states that have eliminated the subminimum wage in favor of a single minimum wage for all workers, women report half the incidence of harassment.
“What’s particularly appealing…is that we have the industry that touches every woman, with the highest rates of harassment, with a tangible concrete solution,” Jayaraman says. “We could really be the beautiful model in showing everyone how a policy change can affect the power dynamic…. We all know harassment is not about sex, it’s about the power dynamic. We can measurably show that changing the power dynamic does have a dramatic impact on reducing harassment.”
More states and business owners are getting the message, Jayaraman says, noting that New York governor Andrew Cuomo has publicly announced exploring one fair wage. “We are so at a tipping point. It’s extraordinary the number of restaurants that want to be a part of a different dynamic.”
Not everyone is on board, though. The New York Restaurant Association released a statement in January opposing the eliminating the tipped wage credit for workers, saying it would usher in more automation and ultimately hurt the people it’s designed to benefit.
“Restaurants will be forced to make up the difference, syphoning resources away from non-tipped workers (cooks, dishwashers), replacing service personnel with tablets and other technology or be forced to make other cuts,” said Melissa Fleischut, president and CEO of the NYS Restaurant Association in the statement. “In an industry widely recognized in having razor sharp margins, any effort to revoke the tipping system New Yorkers know and demand equates to a direct threat to the jobs and future of your local neighborhood restaurants.”
Jayaraman says their study disputes that prediction. ROC United’s data shows that restaurants in One Fair Wage states are flourishing – and that wages for all workers, from the front and back of the house, are higher. The data finds that state-by-state projected sales per full service restaurant employee and sales weighted by population both increase as the tipped minimum wage increases, noting that OFW states have the highest restaurant sales weighted by population, 45 percent higher than the rate of sales in $2.13 states.
“Sometimes people hear about us and there is this fear that we are going to somehow hurt them or ruin them,” Jayaraman says. “On the contrary, we’ve helped so many restaurants become so much stronger, both through a peer network of other restaurants that believe in a higher road and through our support.” She notes that the vast majority of restaurants in their network are small fast casual, small full-service, or mom and pop. “They are thriving not despite paying workers well, but because of paying workers well.”
While ROC United’s message is gaining ground at the state level, at the federal level a Trump administration proposal could set back worker’s wages and increase harassment, Jayaraman says. The new proposed Department of Labor regulations stipulate that employers who pay all employees the full minimum wage would own any tips earned by their staff, and can distribute them as they see fit. While proponents say this could even the playing field between the front of the house and the back of the house, Jayaraman disagrees.
“The new tip rule is unfortunately a very extreme and pretty outrageous proposal by Trump to basically allow employers to keep their employee’s tips,” Jayaraman says. “We totally understand and agree with the desire to share tips with the back of the house,” she says, noting that in one fair wage states that allow tip pooling, strict regulations prohibit managers or owners from handling or taking tips. “The less control you give women over their tips, the greater the chance of harassment.”
Despite the potential roadblocks, Jayaraman feels optimistic that change is coming – hopefully in time to spare her children from harassment. “I have two little girls, and I would be proud if they worked in this industry when they become teenagers,” she says. “I am motivated by the idea that, by the time they are old enough, they should never have to experience what I see most young women experiencing in this industry.”