Employment and Jobs

Improving Restaurant Workers’ Lives by Building Worker Power

August 11, 2022  • Economic Opportunities Program & Sekou Siby

Photo of Sekou Siby

Dr. Sekou Siby, President and CEO, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, Inc.

Restaurant workers at Windows on the World, located on the 107th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, were among many of the people that lost their lives on September 11th. Dr. Sekou Siby (who goes by Siby) was a prep cook for the restaurant but was not working that fateful day. After September 11th, an organization sprung up to support the restaurant workers and their families who had been affected, and Siby joined the efforts as an organizer. Today, he is the president and CEO of that organization, Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United).

ROC United’s mission is to improve restaurant workers’ lives by building worker power and uniting workers of various backgrounds around shared goals and values. The organization has 10 chapters in cities around the country and about 50 staff. According to Siby, “ROC uses a tri-pronged model that includes waging workplace justice campaigns against exploitation in high-profile restaurant companies, promoting the high road to profitability through partnerships with responsible restaurateurs and a workforce development program that moves low-income workers into living wage jobs and lifting standards industry-wide through participatory research and policy work.”

The heart of ROC United’s workforce efforts is the CHOW Institute. The goal of the program is to provide advanced training and employment opportunities in higher-wage jobs. As a former teacher in his native Ivory Coast, Siby has been instrumental in improving the program’s outcomes to increase graduation, employment, and retention rates. The program is growing too. The organization recently developed a partnership with SUNY Empire College to provide ROC United members pursuing training at the college with more flexible opportunities to earn their degrees. More than 10,000 restaurant workers have participated in CHOW training to date.

The CHOW institute aims to help workers obtain employment as fine dining waitstaff, bartenders, and managers. Those jobs have high wages, but hiring discrimination is high too. Siby says, “White workers are more likely to be interviewed and twice as likely to be hired as equally or better-qualified workers of color applying to the same fine dining establishments.” And that’s why Siby knows education and training are not enough.

“Research indicates that training efforts alone are not enough, due to bias and discrimination that consistently prevent people of color, immigrants, and women from having equal access to high-paying jobs. The industry shift is a significant component of our strategy because the employers need a considerable culture change,” says Siby. An important strategy to create this change lies in engaging employers, as described in the box below.

Building a Coalition of High-Road Employers

“ROC’s core strategy is to use the restaurant business community as a great partner in the restaurant industry transformation and hire our workforce development trainees,” outlines Siby. Restaurant Advancing Industry Standard for Employment (RAISE) is ROC’s high-road employer association. In 2021, ROC United reported a membership of over 1,000 restaurants.

The association is centered around a common policy agenda to transform the industry. The agenda includes paid sick time, a minimum wage increase, and eliminating the tipped minimum wage – all integrated with a strong commitment to race and gender equity. This commitment is also helping the association grow. While RAISE’s membership has been built through a lot of outreach, the association is now seeing more restaurants requesting affiliation. “Much of our recent growth can be attributed to new employers approaching us to train and hire workers and help them implement our race and gender equity toolkit,” Siby says.

In addition to helping with workforce needs and improving equity in the workplace, RAISE provides a space for employers to obtain other assistance. The association helps educate members on a range of issues related to compliance, health and safety, employee promotion and retention, benefits, wages, and other high-road practices that support the sustainability of the business. The powerful coalition of business leaders demonstrates that the high road is achievable and advocates for improvements to job quality in the industry.

Improving workplace conditions through workplace justice campaigns and advocacy is another part of ROC United’s strategy to improve job quality. ROC United is helping to lead efforts to increase the federal minimum wage, provide restaurant workers a full hourly wage when not engaged in tip-producing work, and a number of campaigns to support restaurant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. ROC’s campaign and advocacy work is underpinned by research that elevates the experiences of restaurant workers. The State of the Restaurant Workers examines the demographics of restaurant workers, their benefits and wages, and their experiences in the workplace, for example.

Part of ROC’s workplace justice work is helping workers to recover stolen wages. According to Siby, “ROC developed a model of community enforcement that relies on digital communication, litigation (with or without the Department of Labor), mobilization, and research to force a settlement. In 2021 alone, our member organization’s effort led to almost $2 million in back wages.” Siby started his work with ROC United in 2003 as a community organizer, helping workers recover over $10 million in stolen wages and discrimination cases. One goal is to get the industry to a place where wage theft is rare. Siby says, “We see a future where restaurant work is valued, fair, and economically secure with a workforce empowered to protect their interests and achieve sustainable livelihoods. ROC United stands in close solidarity with restaurant workers who imagine a more equitable world for themselves, their families, and their communities.”


Improving Restaurant Workers’ Lives by Building Worker Power: A Profile of #JobQuality Fellow @SEKOUSIBY5, President and CEO of @rocunited.

.@rocunited — led by @AspenJobQuality Fellow @SEKOUSIBY5 — takes a three-prong approach to #jobquality: (1) waging workplace justice campaigns, (2) promoting high-road employer practices, and (3) raising standards and increasing access to living-wage jobs.

RAISE — @rocunited’s high-road employer association — is working toward a common agenda to transform the restaurant industry, including paid stick time, a higher minimum wage, and eliminating the tipped minimum wage.

“We see a future where restaurant work is valued, fair, and economically secure with a workforce empowered to protect their interests and achieve sustainable livelihoods.” #JobQuality Fellow @SEKOUSIBY5 @rocunited

“Training efforts alone are not enough, due to bias and discrimination… The industry shift is a significant component of our strategy because the employers need a considerable culture change.” @AspenJobQuality Fellow @SEKOUSIBY5 @rocunited

Learn more

Dr. Sekou Siby is a member of the Aspen Institute’s Job Quality Fellowship, Class of 2022-23. The Job Quality Fellowship is convened by the Economic Opportunities Program.

The Economic Opportunities Program advances strategies, policies, and ideas to help low- and moderate-income people thrive in a changing economy. Follow us on social media and join our mailing list to stay up-to-date on publications, blog posts, events, and other announcements.

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