Employment and Jobs

Reinventing Restaurant Work: An Overdue Call for Equity and Job Quality

June 12, 2020  • Jenny Weissbourd

As protesters flood the streets, demanding the dismantling of systems of racial injustice, the time has come to take a careful look at the practices embedded in our employment systems, and the restaurant industry is a good place to start. Restaurants are a leading employer of women and people of color, who are over-represented in the industry’s lowest paid occupations. As we emerge from this crisis, can we reimagine restaurant work so that workers, businesses, and communities all thrive?

On June 9, the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program brought together Saru Jayaraman, founder of One Fair Wage and director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley, Dan Simons, co-owner of Farmers Restaurant Group, Nikki M.G. Cole, a labor organizer with longtime experience as a restaurant worker, and Mutale Kanyanta, owner of LOCALS in Brooklyn. In this conversation, titled “Open to Good Jobs: Now is the Time to Improving Equity and Job Quality in Restaurant Work,” these leaders reflected on the long history of racism and poor job quality in the restaurant industry and offered recommendations to chart a better path forward.

Baked In from the Start: Racial and Economic Injustice in Restaurant Work

Jayaraman led off the discussion by noting that the history of structural racism in restaurants dates back to emancipation from slavery. While aristocrats in feudal Europe tipped their servants, the US was the first country to attempt to use tips as a replacement for wages rather than a supplement. The restaurant industry fought to hire newly freed enslaved people on tips alone. “Tipping as wage replacement mutated in the US to become a replacement for slavery,” Jayaraman explained. While restaurant workers did ultimately earn minimal base compensation, it was no accident that in 1938, these predominately Black workers were deliberately excluded from the New Deal’s federal minimum wage, along with agricultural and domestic workers and incarcerated laborers. We made a “large exception to minimum wage based on race and the history of structural racism in the US.”

The legacy of these policy decisions endures today in high levels of economic instability and exploitation among restaurant workers. These workers, who are still disproportionately women and people of color, face low wages, limited hours, poor benefits, and frequent sexual harassment. In the 43 states where they continue to earn less than the minimum wage, most are paid less than $5 an hour before tips. Workers “living tip to mouth” often hold two to three jobs to feed their families, according to Jayaraman. “In most of the country when you have a sub-minimum wage, single moms are feeding their families on tips. They’re told from managers, ‘dress more sexy, show more cleavage, so you can make more money in tips.’” Female restaurant workers are not only subjected to manager and customer harassment; they also consistently earn lower tips than their male counterparts because of customer bias.

Cole, who worked in restaurants for more than two decades, shared her experiences managing economic stress and sexual harassment. “Even when you work all the time, somehow I was always in a position of juggling my bills. I could never feel security.” She added, “I experienced so much sexual harassment and assault in the restaurant industry. It was the first thing I did as a 15-year-old…. You grow up in that environment with it being normal. You get better shifts and sections if you’re silent and cooperative with management and don’t raise things.” Today, Cole often reflects about “why and how” she endured these injustices. “I keep over and over coming back to oppression,” she said. “The oppression of myself, my people. The culture that exists when you work on a sub-minimum wage.”

Existing structural inequities in the restaurant industry have exacerbated the impacts of COVID-19 on Black and Latinx workers. When the pandemic hit, millions of restaurant workers lost work. Official statistics show employment in the sector was cut in half between March and April. During this time, Jayaraman described “thousands and thousands” of workers unable to access unemployment insurance because their total earnings were too low to qualify. New federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance extends benefits to tipped workers, but some state offices have been slow to set up the program.  Since the pandemic, Cole added, she’s heard from many workers who are frustrated by their lack of access to benefits and supports. And those going to work are concerned for their health and safety. “People are scared and frustrated and angry right now. They’re being called back to work in places where there are no safety protocols or training.”

Reinventing the Restaurant Industry

The forced pause in many restaurants’ operations during the pandemic presents an opportunity to reflect – and to restructure the industry to promote greater equity and opportunity. High road employers and states with innovative policies have achieved better outcomes for workers and businesses. Their example points to a better way forward.

The business owners who joined our discussion model how ethical restauranteurs can improve equity and job quality for workers while building thriving businesses. When he founded LOCALS, which serves as a café, kitchen, grocery store, and event space for the community, owner Kanyata wanted to pay a living wage, but he needed guidance to figure out how. So he joined RAISE, “a vibrant community of restaurants committed to professionalizing our industry, raising wages and work conditions, and raising standards for America’s 14 million restaurant workers.” As a member of this coalition, Kanyanta found a community of like-minded peers, who shared tools to help him develop a business model with fair wages, prioritize racial equity, and address sexual harassment.

Simons’ business includes restaurants, bakeries, distilleries, and other food businesses throughout the mid-Atlantic, located largely around Washington, DC. He pays all staff a full minimum wage before tips and is committed to open communication with workers. Simons also believes in promoting frontline workers of color into management. “You think it’s hard to find restaurant managers, but it turns out you’re only looking at one section of the population. You need to have the courage to promote people who don’t look like you…. To find out if your workers are happy, they have to have a voice. They need managers who look like them and have lived their experience.”

Following the pandemic, Farmers Restaurant Group publicly released a pandemic safety manual to support other restaurants in strengthening their practices. But Simons notes that physical safety is just the beginning. Focusing on “mental safety, mental health, and a culturally safe work environment, that solves the physical safety in so many ways.”

Jayaraman sees hope in the seven states where policies require employers to pay a full minimum wage, with tips as a supplement. Despite fears from business owners, these states have had higher industry job growth and small business growth rates. Strikingly, Jayaraman notes that they have had half the rate of sexual harassment in the industry because women are not reliant on tips. Furthermore, Jayaraman explained, “workers in those states have had a very different experience during the pandemic. They’re not having as many problems accessing unemployment insurance.” The One Fair Wage campaign calls for national policy change to pay all restaurant workers a living wage.

Paying One Fair Wage could also help to create more equity between front and back-of-house restaurant staff. Because of enduring occupational segregation in the industry, white males often work in the highest-paid bartender and server positions, while Latinx and Black workers are channeled toward lower paying busser, runner, or kitchen positions. “If you pay everybody the full minimum wage, tips can be shared with all staff in the restaurant,” Jayaraman said. In this “ideal world, the front and back are equally diverse…. You allow for cross-training and a more unified team.”

Order Up: What’s Next for Restaurant Work

Wondering what you can do to support restaurant workers – and advocate for a more equitable and just restaurant industry – as we rebuild the economy? Cole encouraged viewers to learn more by watching the documentary Waging Change and engaging in the political process. Kanyanta urged consumers to vote with their dollars. “Spend in organizations and businesses that have the same values you do. Wherever you’re spending money, you need to ask them about how they treat their workers,” he said.

These leaders’ aspirations for the restaurant industry are ambitious – but they are no more than what this watershed moment demands. “In the 1800s we used to think it was okay for children to work in factories,” Kanyanta said. “We’ve built a food system that has baked in an underclass. These are predominately mothers. It shows a lack of investment in our future. In good conscience I don’t think you can have a business in which you need to oppress your workers in order to make a living. It just doesn’t make sense to me. I think it’s a really exciting time to reinvent our industry.”


As protesters demand the dismantling of systems of racial injustice, it’s time to take a careful look at the practices embedded in our employment systems. The restaurant industry is a good place to start.

Restaurants are a leading employer of women and people of color, who are over-represented in the industry’s lowest paid occupations. Can we reimagine restaurant work so that workers, businesses, and communities all thrive?

Structural inequities in the restaurant industry have exacerbated the impacts of #COVID19 on workers of color. Millions of people have lost jobs, and those still working are concerned for their health and safety.

The history of structural racism in restaurants is rooted in slavery and exclusion from federal policies. These legacies endure today in high levels of economic instability and exploitation among workers.

Blog: “Reinventing Restaurant Work: An Overdue Call for #Equity and #JobQuality” by @jennyweissbourd, The Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program @AspenWorkforce

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