Restaurant Workers Are Paid as Little as $2.13 an Hour — But Saru Jayaraman Says Change Is Coming

The legal activist got a bill passed that will change restaurant workers' lives. And that's just the beginning.

If you've read Sweetbitter or ever worked in dining yourself, you know that restaurant workers often get the short end of the stick — and seldom have an HR department to lean on for help. Legal activist Saru Jayaraman, who kicks off InStyle’s new Badass Women video series today, won't sweep those poor employment practices under the table.

Having worked as a representative and organizer on behalf of immigrant workers for years, she noticed a particularly underserved demand among the thousands of restaurant workers who lost their jobs as a result of the 9/11 attacks and co-founded Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) to help them deal with wage and sexual harassment issues. “It was 9/11 that really changed everything,” she says in the video at top. “As a worker organizer it was hard not to think about what was happening to the thousands of workers in that building who were there just to make a living, just to survive.”

Protecting low-income restaurant workers has since become a calling for Jayaraman, who also teaches public policy as it relates to food at the University of California, Berkley. She is not afraid to stand up for workers, especially women, who make up the vast majority of minimum-wage employees. “Women of color are often labeled a bitch or difficult,” she says. “If what that really means is standing up for yourself and others, then I accept those labels with pride.”

Now, Jayaraman is helping to develop a 1800-square foot center for advocacy and free job training called Restore Oakland in Oakland, Calif. “Restaurant workers or anybody interested in moving up the ladder in the industry will be able to walk in, get free job training, [and] get free help with regards to their housing situation,” she says. “It is the vision and the future that we want for the restaurant industry and for our communities across the country.”

To learn more about Jayaraman and Restore Oakland, check out the video above and read our interview below.

Proudest progress: “Before [ROC United] came along, nobody even knew that workers were making the ridiculous [base] wage of $2 or $3 an hour,” Jayaraman says, explaining that many restaurants justify not meeting minimum wage with the assumption that servers make the majority of their paycheck from tips — except that workers don't always get to keep the full sum of their tips, some restaurants pooling tips to redistribute among their staffs. In April, Jayaraman's team won a huge victory, convincing Congress to pass a bill making tips the property of workers instead of the property of owners. That bill alone will affect some 7 million restaurant workers. But Jayaraman and ROC United are also working to raise workers' base wages altogether and protect them from sexual harassment. “The most rewarding thing for me is seeing women and other under represented workers like immigrants and people of color stand up and say enough is enough,” she says. “Time’s up! Enough is enough on being exploited.”

What makes a badass: “A badass woman is not afraid of the push back at the challenge, the obstacles, and the intimidations that are attempted when you try to stand up to those in power,” Jayaraman says. “I think if we are actually committed to change and we are committed to saying time's up, then we have to expect that those in power are going to push back and unless we’re really ready to confront those in power, nothing’s going to change.”

Overcoming obstacles: The biggest opposition Jayaraman faces comes from the National Restaurant Association, which represents the chains where the workers she represents are employed. “They’ve been lobbying for many years to keep the wage as low as possible,” Jayaraman says. “And since we’re fighting to raise wages and end sexual harassment they have attacked us for 17 years.” The association, Jayaraman says, has consistently tried its best to shut ROC United down most recently by trying to scare workers into believing that if their wages go up, their tips will disappear. “It’s absurd and ridiculous.” But Jayaraman continues undaunted. “I will be darned if my two daughters earn $2-3 an hour or are asked to wear tighter or sexier clothing in order to make more money in tips by the time they work in the industry.”

Self-reflection: “I make a lot of mistakes, but I’ve learned that I’m somebody who’s resilient, willing to improve, and not afraid to consistently challenge the status quo,” Jayaraman says. And she has, most recently by aligning her efforts with the Time’s Up initiative to further her fight for workers. “If I could challenge myself to be better then I think I can challenge all of us.”

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