MRR: You work for an organization called the Restaurant Opportunity Center-United [ROC-United]. Tell me about the organization and what they do for restaurant workers?
AB: ROC is a national organization with a local chapter here in Chicago. We are a workers’ center that fights for better working conditions and wages for restaurant workers. We do that through a number of ways, such as protests, policy work, workshops, and organizing restaurant workers to take actions.
MRR: How did you become involved in the organization?
AB: I was a restaurant worker for about fifteen years. I got involved after I heard Saru Jayaraman—one of the founders of ROC-United—give a speech about sexual harassment in restaurants and how it was so prevalent. I became a volunteer member in Washington State and then was a volunteer member in Chicago before I became a paid organizer.
MRR: You mentioned that sexual harassment is very prevalent in the industry. What is unique about the situation of restaurant workers that they would experience so much sexual harassment?
AB: It depends on what state you live in, but for restaurant workers who work in the front-of-the-house—which means they are on the floor serving people—it usually means that you work for tips and have a lower minimum wage than the normal minimum wage. A lot of people don’t realize that the minimum wage is actually not the minimum. There is a subminimum wage and on the federal level it is only $2.13/hour. If you are only paid $2.13/hour, you can get a paycheck for zero amount because the government takes out for taxes. It is easy for employers to take advantage of workers if they are technically paying them nothing. When workers have to rely on customers to pay a portion of their wage through tips, then workers—women in particular—have to put up with a lot of bad behavior. When a customer starts sexually harassing you, you have to decide if you want to put up with it or if you really need the money. Putting up with this sexual harassment is how millions of working women in the United States are feeding their families. Being a restaurant worker nearly my whole life, it often feels like you are just out with the wolves. You have to worry about sexual harassment, you have to worry about wage theft, you have to worry about all these issues. Even when you don’t have a subminimum wage, there are still so many problems in the restaurant industry.
MRR: There are not a lot of other places outside of the United States where a portion of your wage is expected to be paid by the customer. How did tipping come about and why is so widely practiced in the United States?
AB: Tipping started in Europe. Servants would get a “tip” from noblemen as a sign of gratitude. The custom was brought to America after the Civil War when newly freed slaves went to work in cafes. Of course, white people owned the cafes. They would “hire” newly freed slaves, but they wouldn’t pay them. Instead, they would let them earn tips in lieu of a wage. So, this idea of tipping is actually embedded in America’s legacy of slavery.
MRR: Since tipping is connected to America’s legacy of slavery, does that mean there still exist a lot of racial disparities in the restaurant industry?
AB: Yes. That is the case especially here in Chicago. There is a large gap in wealth between white people who earn tips and black people who earn tips, particularly black women. Black women earn a lower amount in tips for the same work done by a white man or a white woman. Also, in the restaurant industry African Americans don’t tend to be hired for the higher paying jobs. There are some people who brag that they can make $80,000 a year in tips because they work in a really fancy restaurant with a lot of high end customers, but the truth is that a lot of African Americans do not get hired for those kind of jobs. There is sort of an unspoken rule in the restaurant industry where the darker your skin is the farther from the customers you will be. African Americans tend to get hired to do dishwashing, or to be a line cook, or some other position that is not visible. The thing to remember though, is that most restaurants are causal dining. The fancy and high-end restaurants where servers can make a lot of money are the exception. Most serves don’t make a lot of money. The national average for a server in the United State is around $11/hour, it is just with the racial disparities in the industries, people of color have it even worse.
MRR: Does the unspoken rule that the “darker your skin the farther from the customers” also apply to Latinos? How are they affected by these practices?
AB: Everyone knows most Latino folks work in the back-of-the-house or are bussers. Bussing is technically a front-of-the-house job, but bussers don’t interact with customers the way servers do. Bussers actually rely on servers, because the practice is that a portion of the server’s tips will go to the busser. That means that bussers can do a great job and work really hard, but if they happen to end up with bad servers, they won’t make a lot of money during their shift. For the most part though, it is known that Latinos work in the back-of-the-house in dish pits and as line cooks. The conditions of the back-of-the-house can be hard. It can be long hours on your feet in a hot kitchen with no breaks and little pay. It can be hard for undocumented workers to report violations of working conditions or wage theft because of the fear that someone will call ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] if they speak up. For a lot of people, it is too nerve wracking and they would rather stay silent.
MRR: Recently, we had a minimum wage increase here in Chicago, but the City Council decided not to end the subminimum wage in the city. Why do you think that change didn’t occur?
AB: I think Lori Lightfoot got a lot of push back from the Illinois Restaurant Association, which is a local branch of the National Restaurant Association. In ROC, we call them the other NRA. They are such a large lobbying group and have so much power here in Chicago. I think Lori Lightfoot gets a lot of her information from them. The problem is that they tell lies. One of the main pieces of propaganda that the Illinois Restaurant Association uses is this claim that if we get rid of the subminimum wage then a lot of restaurants will go under. They create this fear around small businesses closing. That is actually not true. There are states that have gotten rid of their subminimum wage and they are some of the same states where the restaurant industry is thriving. It is frustrating. There are actual studies done about the subminimum wage, and how getting rid of it can help pull people out of poverty, but I guess that wasn’t enough for Lori Lightfoot and some of the aldermen.
MRR: Even though restaurant workers heavily rely on tips, they are not the only industry where there is tipping. What are some of the other industries where tipping is common and how to does it affect those workers?
AB: According to the Department of Labor anyone who makes more than $30/month in tips in the United States is considered a “tipped worker.” So, if you make $30.01/month in tips your employer only has to technically pay you $2.13/hour. Now, if you don’t make enough in tips your employer is supposed compensate you by bringing your wages up to at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour. The problem is that only 15% of wage violations ever get resolved. No one can monitor every restaurant or other business that uses tips and make sure that they are following properly compensating workers’ paychecks. So, there are a lot of businesses with tipped employees—baristas, nail salon workers, and so on—that steal from their employees and there is nothing that can be done about it. Nail salon workers are a good example where it is known that this occurs. Nail salons have a lot of immigrant workers, particularly from Vietnam. In that situation, there are a lot of different intersections between race, immigration status, and not being able to speak English. When you have those issues and people working in manual labor for a subminimum wage it is easy for people to be exploited.
MRR: Recently, there was a rally in Federal Plaza for restaurant workers [organized by Chicago Restaurant Workers]. What was that rally about?
AB: They were calling for the extension of federal benefits, especially the $600 per week unemployment benefits for people who have been laid off due to COVID-19. So far, Congress has failed to act on extending those benefits. If they don’t, the results could be devastating. Restaurant workers are about to be broke, if they are not already. There has been thousands of layoffs and furloughs. There are thousands of people who are applying for benefits because they are out of work and they are running out of money. They don’t know when they can get back to work and even if they did, their hours will probably be reduced. Without those benefits people don’t know how they are going to pay rent, or buy food, or pay bills. And, if they don’t get those benefits soon, then we will be facing another crisis.
MRR: How are restaurant workers in Chicago dealing with the fallout from COVID-19 and how the city is trying to open back up again?
AB: Chicago is known for its restaurants. The city gets thousands of tourists who come here for its food, but people don’t consider the conditions of the workers in the restaurants. I think restaurant workers are going by the seat of their pants. People are panicking in every industry, but for restaurants workers right now, the industry is collapsing. In some cases, restaurants are shutting down completely, especially if they are small and independently owned. It is just hard to compete with McDonalds and IHOP or some other major casual dining fast food chain or franchise. And, even with some of the independently owned restaurants here in Chicago, there are ones that do this sort of performative progressivism with organic and local items of their menus, but what we are seeing is that COVID is lifting the veil off of those operations and exposing that they are not actually treating their workers decently. It is really hard for restaurant workers to keep track of and report all the safety and OSHA [Occupational Health and Safety Administration] violations that are happening. Right now, people’s lives are in jeopardy and many don’t know what to do about it. There is no transparency in the restaurant industry. Workers don’t know if the restaurant is being cleaned properly or if the proper precautions are being taken with customers. Restaurant owners are trying to squeeze every last dollar out of workers who are sacrificing their lives to come to work. The other day, I talked to a floor manager. She was saying that when COVID first hit she was furloughed for weeks. Then, when we went to phase three and allowed for the reopening of restaurants for outdoor and to-go orders only, she was taken off salary and put onto hourly and there was no transparency about her wages. They didn’t explain anything to her. COVID is a very good time for managers to steal wages from workers because no one knows what is going on. At the same time, we have a lot of restaurant workers who are realizing they are being taken advantage of. We have a lot of people contact ROC. They are asking for more in wages because it is higher risk to be workers, but a lot of managers are saying “no” because they can’t afford it. It’s really hard.
MRR: Do you think Chicago might lose its restaurant industry?
AB: I think it would be a real shame if a lot of restaurants closed because of COVID. We have to ask what we going to do with the thousands of people who rely on those jobs? The city has already suffered from deindustrialization. If COVID destroys large parts of Chicago’s service sector, it will end up being something like that, but potentially worse because we don’t have anything to fall back on. Food and restaurants bring people together. ROC is not anti-restaurant. It is anti-bad working conditions and anti-bad wages in restaurants. We want people to do the right things in this time of crisis. We want owners to pay their workers right. What restaurant workers want is respect for their labor.
The transcript of this interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
About the Interviewee: Ali Baker is an organizer for the Chicago Chapter of Restaurant Opportunity Center-United.
About the Interviewer: Marco Rosaire Rossi is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Illinois-Chicago.