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PolicyLink recently featured ROC’s work as represented in Saru Jayaraman’s new book, Behind The Kitchen Door, in their most recent newsletter: America’s Tomorrow. PolicyLink connects the work of people on the ground to the creation of sustainable communities of opportunity that allow everyone to participate and prosper.

What’s the biggest injustice in restaurant work?

Abysmally low wages. They drag down the whole economy. The current minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 an hour. The terrible truth is that the people who put food on our tables can’t put food on their own table.

Who is affected most?

Seventy percent of tipped workers are women. And workers of color experience a $4 wage gap compared to white workers.

What is the impact on the nation at large?

The restaurant industry is tied with retail as the nation’s largest and fastest growing employer. Restaurants also have seven of the 11 lowest paying jobs in this country. Today, of every four jobs, one is low- or poverty-wage. By 2020, that number will be one in two. Restaurants are a big reason for that.

Your book describes the restaurant workforce as incredibly diverse.

That’s the beauty of this industry. It brings different people together — black, immigrant, young, and old. But it’s also very hierarchical and segregated by race and by gender. It has the potential to be this beautiful place where workers from all backgrounds can come together, but that isn’t the reality in most restaurants.

What does the segregation look like?

People of color are relegated to lower level positions, while white workers are often in management and waiter positions. In some cities, like Miami, the color line is so severe that it literally gets darker the further back you go. Wait staff will be white, runners will be Mexican or from Central America, and the dishwashers will be Haitian. And the hourly wage also changes dramatically, with wait staff making as much as five times as bussers.

There’s also industry segmentation. People of color are concentrated in low-paying types of restaurants, such as fast-food or quick-serve restaurants. African Americans are locked out almost entirely from job opportunities in fine dining in many cities, where good paying jobs are.

What are the opportunities for change?

Tremendous! More than 100 restaurants around the country are taking the high road to profitability, providing good wages and good working conditions. They prove that you can treat workers right, offer affordable prices to consumers, and make a good profit.

What policy opportunities are on the horizon?

I’m very optimistic about the federal proposals to raise the minimum wage, including for tipped workers. A bill introduced last month by Representative George Miller (D-California) and Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) would increase the minimum wage to $10.10, and the tipped minimum wage to 70 percent of that. This would be tremendous for restaurant workers. We need to keep the pressure on.

How can consumers support quality jobs and equity in this industry?

ROC has won 13 campaigns from big restaurants, including winning back $7 million in stolen tips and wages, winning benefits and promotions for workers of color, and getting rid of racist management. In every single one of these victories, consumer engagement was a key part of our campaign. It is incredibly effective when consumers tell restaurants that they won’t eat there until they do the right thing.

How did you get interested in restaurant workers?

My parents are immigrants from India, so I have always had an interest in immigrant worker rights. On September 11, 79 workers at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center, lost their lives. About 250 workers lost their jobs. Their union called me to ask if I would help provide relief to the survivors and the families of the victims.

Then you co-founded the Restaurant Opportunities Center with one of the former employees.

Very quickly, we were overwhelmed with calls for help from restaurant workers from all over the city and then all over the country. We now have 10,000 members in 19 cities across the country.

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