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© Frank

interviews

No Worker Left Behind

by Saru Jayaraman
April 16, 2020

This interview with Saru Jayaraman, a professor at UC Berkeley, President One Fair Wage, and co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunity Center, was conducted and condensed by frank news.

What is the mission of One Fair Wage?

We are working to require full livable wages for all service workers in America. We are trying to eliminate sub-minimum wages in the United States, and the notion of tips as wage replacement. Our motto is “no worker left behind”, nobody in America should be paid less than the minimum wage. That is what the idea of minimum wage was to begin with, after all. 

How does OFW differ from and work with the Restaurant Opportunity Center?

I founded ROC and led it until last year. One Fair Wage was our primary campaign for the last six years, but focused on the restaurant industry. Now, One Fair Wage includes all tipped and some minimum wage workers across the economy, and it's fighting to ensure not only that tipped workers get a full minimum wage, but that all workers get a full minimum wage from their employer.

How does your day to day change amid this pandemic? 

In some ways it put our efforts on speed. It highlighted, in so many ways, why we should have had a full, livable minimum wage to begin with. The vast majority of workers we are talking about earn a sub minimum wage of less than $5 an hour.

The federal minimum wage for tip workers, is still $2.13.

Wow.

It's actually just $2.13 cents in 20 States, and in another 20 States, it's under $5 an hour. You're talking about 40 States where workers are earning less than $5 an hour from their employer, and struggling with the highest rates of poverty and economic instability of any industry in the United States, and sexual harassment because they're living on tips. This moment really highlighted that.

One, there was complete destitution of so many of these workers the next day after being fired. I've been using the phrase tip to mouth.

So many of these workers live tip to mouth: they got tips one day, they were laid off, and they had nothing to feed their kids the next day.

We've received over a hundred thousand applicants to our fund and they write these heartbreaking stories of I don't know how I'm going to feed my children. I don't know how I'm going to keep a roof over their head. I don't know how we're going to survive. It highlighted that living off $2 plus tips was never sustainable to begin with. 

The other issue is that the vast majority of these workers are ineligible for unemployment insurance. Those that are eligible, are getting it based on a sub minimum wage plus tips. Unemployment insurance is already a percentage of your income. For restaurant workers and tipped workers, it's a percentage of a percentage, because they're living on a sub minimum wage and because for so many restaurant workers, tips are not properly calculated. 

Right.

It's a huge problem. It really indicates why we always needed one fair wage. It is also an enormous opportunity because there is a new opening to promote the understanding that this didn't work. It never worked. There's a new opening for understanding among legislators, among consumers, even among employers. There is a real opportunity to change things now. 

We are giving out cash relief. So far 130,000 workers have signed up. We're also inviting them to big tele-town-halls, open to the public on Facebook. We're doing a big tele town hall with Kamala Harris and representative Jay Paul and 3,500 workers. We did one with the attorney general of Pennsylvania on Wednesday and we're doing one with legislators on Thursday in New York. We're doing one next week with other senators and Congress members. We're going to keep doing these as a way to allow workers to lift up their voices and be heard.

How do you work with the employees and restaurants, which are often small businesses. Are you involved in working with the restaurants and employers – to help make sure there is a restaurant industry to return to when this is all over?

Our focus is not just that they have jobs, but that they actually have livable wage jobs. We don't think there should be blanket relief to all the companies that paid $2.13. We think there should be relief that's given to restaurant companies that commit to paying more. Hopefully we can learn our lesson and realize this is not sustainable. We're focusing on programs, policies, incentives, and support for restaurant owners that commit to livable wages, one fair wage, next year post-crisis.

We organized a group of restaurant owners in New York and California to write letters to Congress and State legislature saying employers who commit to livable wage next year should get additional tax relief and support this year. We are rolling out a specific program in regards to that request in certain States within the next two weeks.