America’s Food Workers’ Champion

Saru Jayaraman
Saru Jayaraman Champions Restaurant Workers’ Rights

Saru Jayaraman is the vociferous freethinker spearheading the nationwide One Fair Wage campaign against sub-minimum wages.

Prior to that, Jayaraman co-founded the NPO, ROC-United (Restaurant Opportunities Centers). The wife and mom of two who grew up in California, has for years advocated for the rights of restaurant workers. She also has some books on restaurant workers and labor matters under her belt, including her latest works, “Bite Back: People Taking on Corporate Food and Winning,” and “Waging Change.”

 The Dawning of Activism

Jayaraman, an attorney, took to labor activism while studying at Yale Law School. It was here where she was hired to work on a project that enabled her to help Latino immigrant workers fend for themselves regarding labor abuse. Then in 2001, post 911, she collaborated with Fekkak Mamdouh to represent the unemployed and displaced workers of the World Trade Center restaurant, Windows on the World. The partnership led to the establishment of ROC-United, and soon escalated into a movement for large numbers of immigrant restaurant workers throughout the Big Apple.

One Fair Wage was subsequently launched as a nationwide campaign to boost the hourly minimum wage for tipped workers. The wage system is a two-tiered one, comprising non-tipped and tipped workers, and the campaign’s goal was to replace the dual wage system with a single minimum wage.

Wage Inequality in the Food Sector

Asked how the pandemic has affected restaurant workers Jayaraman said it is important to to understand some history.

“The restaurant industry was, prior to the pandemic, the nation’s second largest and absolute fastest-growing private sector employer: 13.5 million – that’s one in 10 American workers currently – working in restaurants and one in two Americans having worked in the industry at some point in their lifetime,” she said.

America has become the sole nation spending more money on dining out than dining at home, Jayaraman said. Despite the industry’s size and growth, it’s “the absolute lowest paying employer in the United States, largely because of the money parent influence of the National Restaurant Association (NRA),” she said. While conducting her book research she discovered that, “the NRA has been around since the emancipation of slavery, when it first demanded the right to hire newly freed slaves, and not pay them anything, and have them live entirely on tips.”

Jayaraman explains that this practice had, “originated in feudal Europe and was something that aristocrats and feudal Europe gave to serfs and vassals.” However the Europeans had given the workers tips, plus a wage. When it came to America, the practice was “mutated into a replacement for a wage, rather than a bonus on top of a wage,” she said. She notes that due to slavery and the NRA’s “demand to hire newly freed slaves; we went from a zero dollar wage at emancipation, to a $2.13 federal minimum wage for tipped workers in 2020.” Apparently, this was the crisis industry workers had already been facing prior to the pandemic.

The Pandemic and the Food Industry

Jayaraman says that, “prior to the pandemic, people were barely getting by, and with restaurants closing, well I always felt that the 13th of March, 2020 was D-Day in our industry, specifically for the coastal states where we went from the largest industry to [having] 10 million workers being out of work.”

Jayaraman adds that many of those jobs are lost for good and that approximately 30% of those dining establishments would never resurface. This equates to “3 to 4 million people being unemployed in the long term.” She says that those returning to the industry face challenges such as accessing unemployment insurance, as their “sub-minimum wage with tips” was just not enough to claim for the insurance. Another issue currently faced by workers is that if they do qualify for insurance, and are called back to the workforce with co-morbidities, they would either have to go back, or face forfeiting their insurance.

Despite all of this, along with One Fair Wage, Jayaraman continues to fight for their cause.