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Restaurant Workers are fighting to end rampant exploitation

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Restaurant workers rally for a living wage in Washington, DC, in 2022. This movement is growing rapidly as workers across the country demand liveable wages, the writer says. – Picture: Sarah Anderson / Institute for Policy Studies / via Common Dreams

By Helen H Abraha

Growing up, I looked up to my father and aunt, who began restaurant industry careers after immigrating from Eritrea in the 1970s. When I started working, a restaurant job was a natural choice.

While I took great pride in my work, I struggled with the conditions. I was often on my feet for 10-12 hour shifts six days a week, had no access to affordable healthcare, was wholly unaware of my worker rights, and constantly worried about money.

Through laws rooted in slavery, employers are allowed to pay restaurant servers a sub-minimum wage. At the federal level, this wage has been stuck at $2.13 per hour since 1991. If tips don’t raise your hourly pay to at least the regular minimum wage, your employer is supposed to make up the difference. But non-compliance is rampant.

A recent report by the Institute for Policy Studies and Americans for Tax Fairness shows that while Darden was fighting minimum wage increases for their servers, they paid their top five executives a total of $120 million between 2018 and 2022.

When I started as a server in 2018, my hourly wage was $3.89. During the five-month off season, I struggled to make the regular minimum wage, especially if I had a section with empty tables. When I got injured on the job and asked about workers compensation, my manager fired me.

I later experienced what I believed to be wage theft and workplace discrimination. That’s when I joined the movement to end restaurant worker exploitation.

This movement is growing rapidly as workers across the country demand liveable wages. Organisers are working to put minimum wage hikes for tipped workers on November ballots in several states, including Ohio, Maine, Maryland, and Massachusetts. A dozen states are considering legislation to do the same.

I can tell you the opposition to these efforts will be fierce.

I live in Washington, DC. In 2018, I cheered when DC voters passed a ballot initiative to phase out the local sub-minimum wage for tipped workers. But the city council blocked the wage hike, forcing organisers to mount another successful ballot initiative in 2022.

DC finally began phasing out the sub-minimum tipped wage in 2023. And yet many restaurant owners are still undercutting workers by charging 20 percent “service fees” that most customers mistakenly think go to their servers, so they’re likely to tip less.

The National Restaurant Association, with affiliates in every state, is the leading driver of these anti-worker efforts. The lobby group’s members include powerful corporations intent on shifting business risks and costs onto employees, customers, and taxpayers.

I used to work for one of them. In 2019, I had a job at Yard House, which is part of the Darden empire along with Olive Garden and seven other chains.

I faced a common challenge for sports bar servers: Groups would come in to watch a game for several hours, only to leave a modest tip on a $30 bill. Inexperienced managers would also often send me home as soon as I arrived because of overstaffing. On those nights, my pay would be less than my transport costs.

A recent report by the Institute for Policy Studies and Americans for Tax Fairness shows that while Darden was fighting minimum wage increases for their servers, they paid their top five executives a total of $120 million between 2018 and 2022. That’s four times as much as they paid in federal taxes, despite strong profits.

After college graduation, I decided to work full-time as a labour organiser. With so many immigrants relying on restaurants for jobs, this struggle feels personal. But we’d all be better off if corporations like Darden had to share their profits more equitably.

Workers could achieve a better life and restaurants would have less turnover. And for customers, the food will taste even better if they know the hard-working professionals who serve their meals are treated with respect.

Helen H Abraha is an organiser with Restaurant Opportunities Centre – DC

This article was published on Common Dreams