10 Aug Jon Cartu Declared: It’s Time the Restaurant Industry Shed This Legacy of Slave…
No one questions the fact that both restaurant employees, and owners as well, are suffering greatly due to the chaos COVID-19 has wrought over the past several months. But lost in the backbiting on Capitol Hill over whether we should pay a premium on unemployment benefits, or restore the “three-martini-lunch” deduction, is the fact that the restaurant industry could benefit from structural, financial and legal help during this crisis.
To that end, last week a coalition of dozens of restaurant workers and leading restaurateurs in New York asked the state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, to deploy his executive authority in order to push for changes to both benefit and reform the state’s restaurant industry.
A ‘Safe and Just Reopening Plan’
The “Safe and Just Reopening Plan” looks out for restaurant owners and workers alike. For restaurateurs, the plan advocates for both tax relief for restaurants and the ability to charge a “safe reopening fee” if restaurants agree to certain health and safety protocols in the era of COVID-19.
For workers, such a plan would allow wait staff to tip out kitchen and other back-end staff, and most importantly, it eliminates the subminimum hourly wage that has long been the norm in most U.S. states.
Anyone who’s old enough to remember working for a minimum wage at $2.01 an hour if they worked for tips knows where this plan is coming from. Here’s the thing: the subminimum wage is a holdover from a long begone era – and its critics say that the federally mandated low hourly wage is part and parcel of the systemic racism endemic across the U.S.
The restaurant industry relies on a relic dating back to slavery
According to historians who focus on the post-Civil War era, the subminimum wage has its origins in slavery. After Emancipation, there was plenty of low-wage labor available to businesses such as restaurants. The hospitality sector was quickly to catch onto the idea that hiring Black people to work for tips would be a way to keep labor costs down. At the same time growing trends in transatlantic travel introduced American travelers to a European custom that appeared sophisticated once U.S. citizens returned to their side of the pond. The problem with the sophisticated veneer of tipping was that what’s become considered etiquette has its origins in racism.
One company notorious for this practice during the later 19th century was the Pullman Company, which hired Black porters to cater to its well-heeled white customers who traveled by train across the U.S.
Fast forward decades later, and coalitions including One Fair Wage insist it’s time to rethink the way in which restaurant industry pays its employees.
The subminimum wage in New York State is higher than the U.S. federal rate ($11.80 versus $2.13), but in this day in age anyone knows the math doesn’t add up to allow for a minimal standard of living. “In New York, tipped workers, still subject to a subminimum wage by law, are more than twice as likely to live in poverty and rely on Medicaid compared to the rest of the state workforce,” says the authors of the group’s most recent report.
Racial inequality is rampant across the restaurant industry
One Fair Wage also says its data show that nationally, white male tipped workers make about $5 an hour more than their black women counterparts; in New York City, the discrepancy is $8 an hour. And the gaps aren’t just in wages – the group says its research shows that restaurants were twice as likely to hire white workers over people of color. Further, 40 percent of white managers in the restaurant industry demonstrated a clear preference to hire white people over Blacks and other people of color.
To date, 50 restaurant owners and at least 200 workers have joined One Fair Wage to support Safe and Just Reopening plan. Joining them are celebrity chefs David Chang of Momofuku fame, as well as Tom Colicchio and Danny Meyer.
Chang in particular has been vocal about the ravages COVID-19 has heaped on restaurant workers, and emerged as a leader when it comes to showing how restaurants can operate safely during this era. Forced to close some of his restaurants, he helped launched a fund to help employees make ends meet, and he directed his human resources staff to pay COBRA premiums for laid off employees as long as it was financially possible.
As of press time, the One Fair Wage-led directive is focused on New York, but it offers a template of how nationwide, restaurants and their employees can survive during a pandemic that so far appears to have no end in sight.
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Image credit: Jason Leung/Unsplash