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Author urges social justice for restaurant workers

| Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Saru Jayaraman, co-founder and co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) and author of the book “Behind the Kitchen Door”, presented the lecture “Behind the Kitchen Door: Restaurant Workers and their Struggle for Justice”, at the Carey Auditorium in the Hesburgh Library on Monday.
The lecture, sponsored by the Higgins Labor Institute, centered on the struggle of restaurant workers living off the minimum wage, which is currently $2.13 for tipped workers.
“We tend to celebrate the most important life moments in restaurants: birthdays, parties, anniversaries [and] important business meetings,” Jayaraman said. “Most of us cannot even remember the people who touch our food. And I would argue that is very, very purposeful.”
Jayaraman said although the restaurant industry is one of the fastest growing in the United States, restaurant worker wages have been among the top-10 lowest-paid jobs for over two decades.
“How is it that you have got one of the largest and fastest growing sectors in the U.S. economy proliferating the absolute lowest paying jobs in America? What does that mean for any new entrance in the workforce?” she said.
Jayaraman said her interest in the restaurant sector began after the Sep. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, in which hundreds of restaurant workers lost their lives in a small restaurant in one of the towers and more than 13,000 workers lost their jobs in the aftermath. ROC-United currently campaigns for legislation to raise the minimum wage, enforce better working conditions and encourage greater diversity in the workplace.
“The most spectacular part of the last 12 years since 9/11 was getting to know the stories of thousands and thousands of workers across the country and having a completely different dining experience [afterwards],” she said.
According to Jayaraman, the $2.13 wage restaurant workers currently earn is due to legislation from the National Restaurant Association during 1996 that advocated freezing wages for tipped workers.
“As customers, [when we tip], we are paying for the wages for the workers that serve us every time we eat out,” she said.
Jayaraman also showed a video on gender and diversity in the workplace.
“For the vast majority of restaurant workers in the United States, getting a decent, livable wage job is a matter of your skin color or your gender,” she said.
Jayaraman said while federal law requires restaurants to make up the difference in wages if tips do not suffice, many of the restaurant workers said their employers have failed to make up the full difference.
“The U.S. Department of Labor reports an 80 percent violation rate with regards to employers not making sure that tips make up the difference, or stealing tips or requiring workers to pay something out of their tips,” Jayaraman said.
She said states like California and Minnesota have been able to pay both tipped and non-tipped workers the same wage while reporting an increase in profit for restaurants.
“We’ve actually put out data that demonstrates that [the restaurant] industry works better when your workers are paid the same wage as non-tipped workers,” Jayaraman said.

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