Opinion: One fair wage protects restaurant workers

Lillian Li

The summer before I started graduate school, I did what one in two Americans will do at some point in their lives—I got a job working in a restaurant.

I’d thought I was the average restaurant worker: young, unskilled, and temporary. In fact, most of my co-workers were in their fifties, or older. Many had spent their entire lives working in restaurants, and their decades of experience showed. Both in their professionalism on the dining floor, and in the ways the neglect of the industry had marked their lives. One co-worker showed up to the restaurant in the middle of an asthma attack. Another had nerve damage in his feet. The manager sometimes reminisced about all the sexual advances she’d had to ignore when she had been a waitress. Most disturbing, though, was the matter-of-fact way my co-workers told these stories.

Anchor Bar waitress Jean Matias, takes an order from hockey fans Steve O’Keefe, left, David Raft and Jeff Gillow, all of Saline. The Anchor Bar is a popular stopping-point for gamegoers downtown.

This is what happens when an industry, and a society, treats a group of people as disposable. Leisure and hospitality is the fourth largest private employer in the U.S., with the restaurant industry being the largest private sector employer of women in the country. Yet the industry is also among the lowest paying: five out of the ten lowest paying occupations are restaurant jobs. In many states, tipped workers receive the federal tipped wage of only $2.13 per hour, making them especially vulnerable.

Restaurant workers who must rely on tips to feed their own families cannot speak out against their customers and employers without risking their livelihood—which is why incidences of sexual harassment occur twice as often in states with a two-tiered wage system for tipped versus non-tipped workers. In fact, the restaurant industry is the single largest source of sexual harassment claims.

However, there is a policy with a proven track record of addressing both low wages and unjust workplace dynamics: One Fair Wage. The policy is designed to raise the subminimum tipped wage to the full minimum wage, often over a period of several years, allowing the business sector to adjust. In fact, One Fair Wage has already been in effect for decades in seven states. These one-fair-wage states have half the rate of sexual harassment as the 43 states with subminimum tipped wages.

In addition, these seven states have higher restaurant sales, higher job growth in the restaurant industry, and the same or higher tipping averages than the 43 states where tipped workers still get paid the subminimum wage rate. While the opposing side cites a diminishing customer base and the disappearance of tips to frighten restaurant workers and voters alike, the proof is in the statistics.

No one wants to be seen as a victim, and my co-workers at the restaurant were no exception. But in rising above the poor treatment they faced, they became accustomed to the pain and the invisibility that sent me running after less than a month. The day I quit I felt not relief, but guilt. I could afford to leave; my co-workers, not so much. Months later, I started writing my first novel, Number One Chinese Restaurant, to try to change misinformed perception that restaurant workers are unworthy of our respect and our protection.

Lillian Li is the author of the novel Number One Chinese Restaurant (Henry Holt).Originally from the D.C. metro area, she lives in Ann Arbor.