The TED Interview
How do we fix the restaurant tipping system? with Saru Jayaraman
August 25, 2022
[00:00:00] Steven Johnson:
Welcome to the TED Interview. I'm your host, Steven Johnson. For most Americans, it's almost second nature. You eat a meal at a restaurant, get the bill, do a little mental math, and add a tip for the server. But that seemingly innocuous act actually has a long and in many ways troubling history. It's also at the center of one of the most important labor battles in the United States right now: the fight to eliminate the sub-minimum wage and tip-based labor generally.
Now, over the past five or six years, you might have heard stories about prominent restaurant owners abolishing tips at their establishments. It's a movement that people seem to be paying attention to lately. But like so many aspects of our lives as both workers and consumers, the battle against sub-minimum wages was transformed during the COVID pandemic when overnight, restaurant workers across the country, millions of them, found themselves unable to work, and many of them were denied unemployment benefits because their official wages were too low to qualify.
So as part of our series on the future of work, we wanted to do a deep dive into this critical part of our economy and see whether the COVID crisis might indeed give us an opportunity to move millions off of tip-based wages and onto a more humane and predictable form of compensation. And we've got the perfect guest to walk us through the past and future of the sub-minimum wage.
[00:01:35] Saru Jayaraman:
I always did. I had no idea that in New York and in 43 states in the United States, that tip that I was leaving was not a tip. It was in fact a wage because of a man named Herman Cain. Do you remember Herman Cain?
So back in 1996, Herman Cain led the National Restaurant Association, which we call the other NRA, and back in 1996, the other NRA, under the leadership of Herman Cain, struck a deal with Congress saying that they wouldn't oppose an increase in the overall minimum wage as long as the minimum wage for tipped workers stayed frozen forever at $2.13 an hour.
[00:02:16] Steven Johnson:
Saru Jayaraman has been a leading organizer in the restaurant industry for more than 20 years now. She's the founder of the organization One Fair Wage and Director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California Berkeley. She's also the author of four books, including Forked: A New Standard for American Dining and her latest, One Fair Wage: Ending Sub-minimum Pay in America. That's next on the TED interview.
[00:02:57] Steven Johnson:
Welcome to the TED Interview Podcast.
[00:03:00] Saru Jayaraman:
Thanks for having me.
[00:03:01] Steven Johnson:
So one of the things that we've been focusing on this season is the way that the pandemic has challenged a lot of conventional assumptions about how we work. And you've written, you know, very powerfully about this, uh, in your latest book One Fair Wage about the, you know, the impact of COVID on the restaurant industry in particular, and on the general practice of sub-minimum wage work across the board.
But your involvement in this field, you know, predates the pandemic by, by many years. And so I thought maybe we could start with that, just a little bit of your backstory of how you got in, involved in this movement and, and what was it that originally kind of sparked your interest in it.
[00:03:44] Saru Jayaraman:
Absolutely. Um, well, I guess I would start by saying my… I’m the daughter of immigrants from India. I was, uh, the first child born in America when my parents came to the US, and so I, you know, I saw their struggles and was very drawn, you know, straight out of law school and graduate school to do work with immigrants and immigrant workers in particular, and was doing that work when 9/11 happened and on September 11th, there was a restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center Tower 1; 73 workers died, mostly immigrants from all over the world that morning, and about 250 workers lost their jobs.
And it's interesting how that moment, in some ways, similar to the last couple of years of the pandemic, you know, people died in New York. People weren't eating out. Workers lost their jobs and outta the ashes of tragedy, we created this relief center for, I was asked actually to create a relief center for workers who had lost their jobs and the families of the victims at the World Trade Center.
And what started as a relief center grew very quickly because we were flooded with workers, first from all over New York City and then all over the country because there hadn't been a place for restaurant workers to go. And being so bombarded, you know, I'm an academic always as well as an organizer. Of, of course, I was asking, “Why? Why, why is this happening? Where is this coming from?” and was pretty shocked to find out that the restaurant industry, uh, was almost 14 million workers pre-pandemic. 1 in 10 American workers worked in restaurants pre-pandemic, but it's also been the absolute lowest-paying employer in the United States for generations, dating all the way back to, uh, the emancipation of slavery when the restaurant industry sought the ability to hire Black people and mutate tipping at that point to become a way, a methodology to basically pay Black people zero, to continue slavery and have them live exclusively on tips, which was never the intention of tipping as its original form.
It was always supposed to be on top of a wage, not the wage itself. So the, I think the answer to your question is the, you know, it started because out of fate, I guess me being asked after this crisis to work with these workers, set up a relief center, But the more I understood about so much, you know, the size of the industry, the scale of the problems, the history that is so ugly and so wrong, the very, very powerful trade lobby that the National Restaurant Association, which we call the other NRA, that has maintained this slave wage, literally legacy of slavery wage for 160 years since emancipation. The more you learn, the more you realize this is not actually just about restaurant workers. This is not actually just about this particular wage number.
It is fundamentally about, I think the biggest things we need to deal with in this country. One: our original sin of slavery. Two: who controls this country? Is it corporations and corporate trade lobbies, or is it the people who overwhelmingly agree with the idea that when you work, you should be paid by your employer enough to live, survive, feed your children.
[00:06:57] Steven Johnson:
I wanna get… Later in our conversation. I wanna return to the question that you've just raised there, which is why is it so hard to, to, you know, actually make change here, given the overwhelming support for these ideas? But I think the history is really fascinating too, and I think, I think most listeners probably do not associate this, this practice of, of leaving a tip at a restaurant, uh, with this long and kind of dark history. So could, let’s dive into that a little bit more. You know, where does this really come from? What are the roots of the practice?
[00:07:32] Saru Jayaraman:
Yeah, so tipping originated in feudal Europe. It was, if you read any old English literature or, or watch period pieces, you'll see references to tipping. It was what aristocrats and nobles gave to serfs, vassals, domestic workers, but always on top of a wage. Always these workers got actual wages and a tip was always meant to be an extra or bonus for a job extra well done. The idea of tipping came to the United States in the 1850s when Rich Americans started to travel to Europe and come back and try to show off that they knew the rules of Europe.
So, people who traveled to Europe came back and tried to tip, and it was overwhelmingly rejected. Americans initially hated tipping. In fact, six states passed prohibitions on tipping, and there was a movement, a populist movement, anti-tipping movement, that basically the rallying cry was, you should get good service regardless of how much you can afford to tip. And by the way, we think employers should pay their workers, not customers.
But then two things happened to completely change the course of history on this issue in America. One was in 1853, waiters—who at the time were mostly men and got a wage, a full wage—went on strike in Boston and Philadelphia and New York demanding higher wages, and in response to the restaurant industry at first replaced them all with women who they felt they could pay less. This is how serving became a majority-female industry in the US, is basically the idea “We don't wanna pay these guys more, so we'll bring in women who we can pay a lot less.”
And then, 10 years later in 1863, “Wow. Here's this population of newly freed slaves who we can pay nothing at all. Not even a lesser wage, no wage.” People are coming outta slavery, we tell them, you know, if you want a job, you can have the luxury or privilege of getting a white person's tips. Uh, you know, but we're not gonna pay you.
So they, at that point, in 1863 at emancipation, they mutated the notion of tipping. They—meaning the service sector, the hospitality industry—mutated the notion of tipping from being an extra bonus on top of a wage as it had always been since feudal times to becoming the wage itself as a way to basically continue slavery, continue to pay Black people nothing for work.
And that idea became institutionalized into law in 1938 as part of the New Deal, when everybody got the right to the federal minimum wage for the first time. But millions of Black workers were left out. Farm workers were left out, who were mostly Black. Domestic workers were mostly left out, mostly Black. And of course, tipped restaurant workers were mostly Black women were left out and told “You, get a $0 wage as long as your boss pays you. You know, you get tips. Your boss is not responsible for paying you.”
And we went from zero in 1938, all the way up to the ridiculous $2.13 an hour, which is the current federal minimum wage for tipped workers in the United States because of the lobbying of the National Restaurant Association, which is led by the chains. Uh, and we have 43 states today that persist with this legacy of slavery.
Most of them have wages of $5 or less. Even very blue states. There are seven states that got rid of this system many decades ago. California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Minnesota, Montana, and Alaska all require a full minimum wage for restaurant workers with tips on top, but 43 states, even as I said, very blue states persist with this idea that it's okay that these workers don't get paid at full wage, ‘cause supposedly they, it's okay for them to live on tips.
What's so exciting and why I'm so glad to be talking to you right now is that we're in a very historic moment where after 160 years of this wage structure lasting since emancipation, it is finally being rejected by millions of workers in this industry.
[00:11:27] Steven Johnson:
It's a really interesting Tim, and that's one of the reasons why we're excited to have you as a guest. Um, one thought that occurred to me, it's kind of ironic in a way that tipping came over from Europe and now it's kind of the reverse—
[00:11:39] Saru Jayaraman:
[00:11:40] Steven Johnson:
—that Americans go to Europe. And I think, you know, most of us feel kind of sheepish about not tipping in Europe. Like, is this okay? Surely this is… surely they're gonna be angry at me.
[00:11:48] Saru Jayaraman:
[00:11:49] Steven Johnson:
And we already feel bad about big obnoxious Americans, and now we're not leaving a tip. It's gotten so much worse. But, so how much is, I mean, you know, I think that number is just so striking, like, you know, barely $2, uh, as a sub-minimum wage. How much is the US an outlier in terms of this practice?
[00:12:06] Saru Jayaraman:
We are the only country on earth where we essentially are asking one group of working people, the consumers, to pay another working people's wages rather than having the employer pay their own workers' wages.
What happened in Europe, to your point, when I mentioned there was this populist movement in the US: rejection of tipping, six states banned tipping. That populist movement spread to Europe and the labor movement picked it up in Europe and said, “We reject these feudal notions. Uh, we are professionals. You know, we don't, uh, need to live on your largess. We, we demand to be paid as professionals by our employers.”
And so Europe got rid of tipping in most of the service sector, and to this day, pay much higher wages than we do in the US. Pay full wages, you know. We're so far behind. We’re so far, radically far behind. Not only where we should be by morality, but where we should be economically given productivity and inflation and everything else. So this is an artificially, radically stagnated wage that is unique to the United States.
[00:13:19] Steven Johnson:
And before we get to the question of how COVID exacerbated a lot of these issues and, and then also indirectly led to opportunity here that we're gonna talk about, I, I think it's worth just pausing for a second to talk about the full range of problems that you see with this, uh, uh, compensation approach beyond just the fact that the, the baseline is so low. Can we talk about that a little bit?
[00:13:40] Saru Jayaraman:
Yeah. Absolutely. So in these states that persisted with a sub-minimum wage, it has been an overwhelmingly female population, disproportionately women of color, because of the history that I shared and, and I, I do just wanna pause and say, when you look at that history, you cannot see the wage structure in this industry as anything other than a devaluation of women's work and Black life. That is the only way to see the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers.
It should be obvious to anybody that living on $2 and $3 and the variations of tips, like they go up and down, season to season, shift to shift, day to day, month to month, you know, that is totally economically unstable. I think the part that we really work to point out, even pre-pandemic, was that we do, as the restaurant industry, have the highest rates of sexual harassment of any industry because we force this largely female population to have to put up with anything and everything to get that tip, and our research shows it isn't even just putting up with it. In fact, managers encourage women in the industry, “Dress, dress more sexy, show more cleavage, wear tighter clothing in order to make more money in tips.” Which means they are not just told to tolerate it, they’re told to go out and encourage it as the way to be successful, a successful worker in this industry.
When you pay a woman a full wage, she doesn't have to put up with as much from her customer. She can say, “Buzz off. I can count on my wage this hour from my boss. I don't need to put up with you, uh, because I get a wage.” Like every other worker in every other industry.
[00:15:13] Steven Johnson:
That's fascinating. So let's shift to the COVID crisis, uh, and how it transforms what was already a, a, you know, a challenging situation for a significant part of the American workforce. What happens? Particularly in those early days of, of COVID, you, you and your organization got involved in a really powerful way. Walk us through that, that timeline and the kind of, the first six months I think would be really interesting to hear about.
[00:15:39] Saru Jayaraman:
Yes. A very intense couple of years. Um, so March, if you, if people remember Friday, March 13th, Friday the 13th was the shutdown in a lot of states across the country. Uh, we scrambled that weekend and launched a relief fund for service workers by March 16th.
Didn't know what to expect. 270,000 workers from all 50 states applied for relief, and we instantly started engaging them, organizing them, surveying them on their needs and conditions. What they told us was pretty horrific. 6 million restaurant workers lost their jobs. Two-thirds of tipped workers reported to us that they were told they were ineligible for unemployment insurance because in most states, they were told their sub-minimum wage was too low to qualify for benefits. And you know later when press and Republicans are asking, “Oh, are they lazy? Why aren't they coming back? Are they lazy staying home collecting unemployment insurance?” We were laughing because two-thirds of these workers never even got unemployment insurance to begin with. And that forced so many of them to go back to work before they felt safe.
You know, the CDC reported restaurants the most dangerous place for adults to be during the pandemic. UCSF named restaurants the most dangerous place to work in the US. Uh, so a lot of workers died. But they had no choice. They didn't get unemployment insurance. They went back to work. They reported, they found tips went way down because sales were down, and customer hostility and health risks and sexual harassment went way up with women reporting, “I’m regularly asked, take off your mask so I can see how cute you are before I decide how much to tip you.”
That was so pervasive we started coining a phrase for it. We called it maskual harassment. Um, and it really changed the issue from being an injustice—a race and gender and economic injustice—to being a matter of life and death. And really the, the, the, the breaking point for so many millions of workers was when they were asked with all of that, to enforce COVID protocols—masks, social distancing, and vaccination card rules—on the very same people from whom they were supposed to get tips to make up their base wage. That was it. They were done.
I mean, look, it wasn't e—some workers said “Every time I try to enforce these rules, I get tipped less.” But other workers said, “It's not just even being tipped less, I'm getting screamed at, punched in one case, even shot for trying to enforce these rules. You are asking me to put up with so much more for so much less in tips. I’m done. I'm done.”
A million workers have left the industry and of those who remain, 54% say they're leaving. And the most miraculous thing has happened to me. This is one of the silver linings of the pandemic. Thousands and thousands of restaurants, many of whom said it would be impossible to raise wages, they'd go outta business, are now paying 15, 20, 25, 30. We saw some restaurants in Cape Cod paying 50 bucks an hour plus tips. Suddenly people are finding it's doable. It's the only way to get workers to come back to work.
[00:18:46] Steven Johnson:
Tell us about what you and, and your organization did in response to those early days. ‘Cause that was quite a dramatic story as well.
[00:18:53] Saru Jayaraman:
Yeah. Well, as I mentioned, shutdown happened the 13th. We scrambled and set up this relief fund by the 16th, uh, you know, 270,000 workers applied for relief and we unexpectedly raised tens of millions of dollars. We were so moved by the generosity of Americans who I think saw what we had been saying all along, the size and scale of this industry.
The fact that these workers had nothing to fall back on the next day. I like to say these workers lived tip to mouth. You know, they had tips one day, the restaurant closes, they have absolutely nothing the next day. And so we raised like 24 million. All of that went straight out the door to tens of thousands of workers, provided lots of legal support to those workers, and, uh, a lot of, uh, financial counseling and most importantly, started organizing them to meet with their elected officials, senators, governors.
You know, and, and to say which, that was the most incredible moment for me because I've been organizing workers for over 20 years. And to see workers in that moment show up at those town halls and, you know, without our, our urging or suggestion started saying to these elected officials, “We're not going back. We're not. We know our value now. We should not go back without a full wage. We will not go back with a full wage.”
Because what COVID revealed for these workers, and we were able to use the relief fund to also survey workers, find out their desires, needs, conditions, wants. What COVID revealed to these workers, they reported to us is that tipping was never a reliable source of income to begin with. There had been this mythology because it's fast cash—some nights you do really well, lots of days you don’t—that it's okay. It's manageable because there are those nights where I get a lot of money. Uh, So we just set up two relief funds, one for workers, one for employers.
We created a relief fund for restaurant owners that committed to raise wages during the pandemic. That was also really, uh, powerful and impactful. All of these things helped, I think, really move us from a place of crisis to a moment of opportunity because workers came together as a result of the fund and all of these. To finally stand up collectively and say, enough is enough.
[00:21:23] Steven Johnson:
It is such the story of the pandemic. I mean beyond all the tragedy of the, the health crisis that it did force on,so many levels in society, it forced us to see everything with, with kind of in—
[00:21:35] Saru Jayaraman:
New eyes. Yeah.
[00:21:35] Steven Johnson:
—a new light.
[00:21:36] Saru Jayaraman:
[00:21:37] Steven Johnson:
And with new eyes. You know, you just, you get a different perspective on, on so many levels and work particularly, I think is, is an example of that.
You, that's a perfect transition. That's something that I, I did wanna touch on here, which is the relationship between this particular struggle inside the restaurant industry and, and the broader labor market in general, because the sub-minimum wage and tipping is not exclusive to the restaurant industry. So talk a little bit about the, the broader context of, uh, of who else in, in the workforce is dealing with the same issues.
[00:22:07] Saru Jayaraman:
Absolutely. And, and the book, uh, One Fair Wage, my latest book, we actually feature workers from all the different sub-minimum wages.
[00:22:16] Steven Johnson:
[00:22:16] Saru Jayaraman:
So within tipped workers who get sub-minimum wages, you have mostly restaurants, but then you've got nail salon workers, car wash workers, the people who push your wheelchairs in airports, hair salon workers, parking attendants, all get a sub-minimum wage because they're tipped. And then you've got this whole realm of gig workers, um, Instacart, DoorDash, where a lot of these companies have attempted to emulate this boondoggle that the restaurant industry has by basically cutting worker payments based on how much they get tipped, and they've been called out on it and claimed they've gone away from it.
But none of us know. The workers don't know. We don't know. The, the calculations are very opaque. It's, it is… The gig worker sector in many ways is trying to emulate what we've, the issue you've had all along, which is that every time you tip, you think it's on top of the wage, but in fact cutting against the workers' wage.
That's been true in the restaurant industry, and now it's true in a lot of the gig sector. And then beyond that, you've got sub-minimum wages for workers with disabilities, which is based on a really gross, antiquated idea that people with disabilities are less productive. You've got, you know, a sub-minimum wage for youth, which can not be seen as anything other than ageism.
Like if the work is not different for a young person than an older person, why is the wage different? And then you've got a sub-minimum wage for incarcerated workers, which is also rooted in our very ugly history of slavery. It's the exception of the 13th Amendment that allows for slavery in the case of incarceration and what I am saying about the beauty of this moment, this historic moment, is that this refusal by service workers—restaurant, nail salon, gig workers—to go back to work for sub-minimum wages is now opening the door to move wage policy in a lot of states. It's a really exciting time.
[00:24:09] Steven Johnson:
Let's think about where this moment is gonna take us in terms of affecting a long-term change here. So think about the, on the side of legislation, right? So the, the Raise The Wage Act has been introduced multiple times in Congress since 2017, I believe. Um, tell us a little bit about the history of that. How, you know, specifically addresses these issues we've been talking about in terms of tipping in sub-minimum wage, um, and where that particular piece of legislation currently stands. What's the state of play with that?
[00:24:46] Saru Jayaraman:
Yeah, so as you said, it's actually passed in the House twice in 2019 and 2021. Um, 2019 was actually historic because the Raise the Wage Act, uh, would not only raise the wage to 15, it would end the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers and workers with disabilities and passed in the house in 2019. That was the first time in US history that either House of Congress moved to eliminate the sub-minimum wage. It was actually a very historic moment, uh, since slavery. It was the first time. Of course, the Senate didn't pass it then. It was a Republican-controlled Senate at the time.
Come 2021, we had a lot of hope, you know. In 2020, uh, the first exciting moment was that President—presidential candidate at that time—Biden really made this a very big part of his platform, said, we are, you know, “We need 15, and we absolutely need to end these sub-minimum wages.” And then true to his word, introduced it as part of the very first package of bills and then, uh, was killed in the Senate of course, this time by eight Democrats, um, who, you know, were, have been pretty open saying, many of them saying, “Well, I can't vote for this because the Restaurant Association has told me I can’t.”
Which, you know, just, you have to ask, who controls democracy in our country? Is it the people who vote these legislators into office or the trade lobbies who seem to have a ridiculous amount of control over them? We’ve been talking a lot in recent months about the Rifle Association. People don't know that the Restaurant Association has been one of the most powerful lobbies in Congress and 43 states. That's been their purpose is to keep wages as low as—I would say—inhumanely possible.
Um, and they, and they, they listen. Democrats and Republicans listen. They fall over the whims of the Restaurant Association when people in blue and red state support people getting a full wage. Finally, last year when the Great Resignation just exploded, and it was clear that restaurants weren't gonna be able to reopen unless they raised wages, we decided that, you know, if we can't move at the federal level, gotta do this at the state level.
And so we announced early this year a campaign to move bills and ballot measures to end, to raise wages and end sub-minimum wages in 25 states by the US 250th anniversary, which is 2026, the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and we wanna ask the country, you know, “Do we wanna go into our next quarter millennium carrying with us the vestiges of slavery, or do we wanna build back better?”
And so we have mapped out 25 states where we can totally get this done. So by the next time we're able to move this in Congress, half the country will already have ended the sub-minimum wage. And I think that is the only way to show these legislators that most of the country wants this, demands this. You are the radical, uh, kind of extremists, keeping workers at these ridiculously low wages.
[00:27:55] Steven Johnson:
There was a kind of an interesting turning point about five or six years ago that I remember hearing about in New York here, which was Danny Meyer, the kind of famous restauranteur, Union Square Cafe and Shake Shack and things like that. Um, he announced that he was switching to a nontipping model in his restaurants, and it got a lot of coverage, and there were a lot of restaurants had followed in his wake. I remember a bunch of restaurants here in Brooklyn, um, you, three or four years ago, um, adopting that policy. You could definitely see it as, as a movement that was starting to happen.
Post-COVID, Meyer switched, I believe, and, and said that he still supports the general movement, but was going to reinstitute, um, the tipping practice in his restaurants. What was your take on that? Do, do you know the backstory? I'm curious what, what was happening?
[00:28:46] Saru Jayaraman:
Yes. Yeah, it's a really interesting backstory. So 2015, uh, the president of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker, who, who knew me, we were grantee and knew Danny, sat us down and said, “You two really have to meet and talk.” I shared the history of the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers and the impacts on, especially women working in casual restaurants, IHOPs, Denny’s struggling with very high rates of poverty and sexual harassment, and Danny's response was, “I've hated this system for many years, and it’s time to get, get rid of it.” And so he invited me to come speak to all of his management.
Uh, and some of the managers got really excited and said, “We wanna, we wanna move forward. We wanna move away from this model.” And I do wanna say what we are advocating for is not to get rid of tipping, it's to have a full minimum wage with tips on top to allow tips to be shared among all non-management staff, and then allow restaurants to go further than that to service charges or gratuity free models or whatever.
So Danny's been a super supporter since that time. You know, he's had to make adjustments during COVID, as many employers have had to, um, honestly, because there isn't a level playing field. That is the main reason. It isn't that he doesn't wanna do this or he doesn't think it's the right business model, it's simply that it's too hard to do alone.
And what all, you know, we have an association that's grown during COVID to 2,500 restaurant owners like Danny across the country who support policy to end the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers because so many of them say, “I, I need to do this. I have to raise wages to recruit staff, but I cannot do it alone. It has to be a level playing field.”
[00:30:29] Steven Johnson:
I was curious how the current inflation situation that we're battling is affecting t he argument and, and perhaps the kind of counter-argument coming from the, the National Restaurant Association, the other NRA as you like to call it.
[00:30:43] Saru Jayaraman:
[00:30:44] Steven Johnson:
Um, and, and the restaurant owners themselves. What, what’s the impact of inflation on all of this?
[00:30:49] Saru Jayaraman:
Well, it’s amazing. So that has led to his—historic things happening in this moment. We are on the ballot in November in Washington, DC to end the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers. That is historic. We, we put this on the ballot in Washington DC in 2018.
We won, of course, ‘cause everywhere you put it on the ballot, people say yes. The city council Democrats in the pocket of the Restaurant Association overturned the will of the people. Well, we just put it on the ballot again. The head of the city council who led the overturn has said he's not gonna overturn it.
There's no opposition. This inflation argument has not worked with the people of DC. It's about to pass. In Portland, Maine. There's an $18-an-hour ballot measure moving that would end all sub-minimum wages in Portland. Uh, in Michigan, we just finished collecting 600,000 signatures to put this on the ballot, and I was in Michigan talking to people in western Michigan, small-town Michigan. And I didn't know what to expect walking up to people who look very different from me, thinking they would be angry or react to me in a certain way. And I was shocked. People said, “Oh, I've already signed that,” or “Where can I sign that?”
And I had a guy, who I made an assumption coming from California, uh, about what this person would say to me. And he said to me, “Of course, I'll sign that.” The cost of gas in Michigan right now is $4.50 a gallon. The minimum wage is $9 an hour. You're telling me I have to work an hour for two gallons of gas? That is ridiculous and unlivable and nobody's gonna go work for those wages. And if we want people to come back to work for those wages, we have only one choice and it's to raise the wage.
[00:32:28] Steven Johnson:
I wanna ask you a more general question here that I kind of alluded to earlier, which is, I mean, whether you look at the sub-minimum wage or, or just the minimum wage? I mean, I believe that this is right. The current minimum wage adjusted for inflation is 40% lower than it was in 1970. Something, something in that.
And we know that we have a problem with inequality in this country. That's a, that's a pretty, pretty much widely accepted idea. And as you say, when you ask people should, you know, receive a, a living wage for doing real work, they overwhelmingly say yes. But somehow, the, the fact that say, the minimum wages stayed, has gone backwards over the last 50 years and that people are still being paid, you know, just over $2 an hour as a, as a base rate, somehow it doesn't seem to provoke the same level of outrage that so many other hot button political issues, right?
And yet the basic fact that you have, you know, one of the largest industries in the country, um, where people are getting paid $2 an hour, that somehow doesn't generate that level of intensity, even if opposition to it polls well. Beyond the kind of the influence of, of the Restaurant Association. Do you have a, a read on why that is?
[00:33:48] Saru Jayaraman:
I, I guess I wouldn't. I wouldn't agree with that. People do feel intensely about this, but there's a sense just like gun control, that we all agree on this issue, but it still can't get done. That means politics in America is completely dysfunctional and it is. It is so removed from me, I'm just not gonna engage. And the only time they do engage is when it's directly on the ballot, so they have the chance to go vote themselves a raise.
[00:34:16] Steven Johnson:
It must be, you know, so thrilling. Like you can hear it in, in your voice describing this, to have been working on this issue for so long and to really see this moment of opportunity emerge, um, and to have you and your organization and your writing be, be such a key part of it. Um, you, you mentioned the kind of the state-level fight. Um, what is next for One Fair Wage as an organization?
[00:34:39] Saru Jayaraman:
Yeah, so we're on the ballot in DC, Maine. California is on the ballot to go to $18 an hour this November. We're gonna be on the ballot in many more states in 23, 24, moving as legislation in dozens of states.
So, we are on track to get to half of the country by the nation's quarter millennium. But I think it's important to note that our campaign is not just about passing these things, it's through the process mobilizing millions of people to vote who right now are feeling so disengaged, so frustrated from the political system.
This is a way we are seeing, I mean, we have proof. In 2018, uh, we used this issue to mobilize voters. We saw a 300% voter increase among low-wage workers as a result of this issue being front and center, what they were voting for. So we know it works. I mean, I do, I do wanna say one thing. Because maybe there are people who are listening who you know, their passion is climate change or it's reproductive justice or other issues.
And I, people have to understand that any issue that we care about, whether it's climate change or reproductive justice or anything else, we cannot, we will not have the political will to move on those other issues, gun control, anything else until we actually, you know, meet the needs of people who feel very disconnected from the political system because they've been left behind at a $2 and $3 and $7 wage, which nobody can live on.
And they've seen elected officials of both parties leave them behind at that wage. So why would you vote? Why would you vote? And so if we want that political will to make changes on everything else we care about, we have to deliver. We have to deliver for these folks.
[00:36:26] Steven Johnson:
And we know that just living at, around or below the poverty level just ends up placing such a, a toll on the body and the mind in terms of stress, but it's very hard to focus on anything else.
[00:36:38] Saru Jayaraman:
[00:36:39] Steven Johnson:
Other than just trying to figure out how to put food on the table.
[00:36:41] Saru Jayaraman:
[00:36:42] Steven Johnson:
Well how can you think about climate change—
[00:36:43] Saru Jayaraman:
[00:36:43] Steven Johnson:
—when you’re, you're getting paid $2 an hour. It doesn't, it it's not possible. So it, you're right. It does… it, it lifts everyone up to a position where then they can start focusing on other types of issues and getting more engaged. And that's a, that's a really important thing to say.
[00:36:55] Saru Jayaraman:
That’s right. You can’t think about your future if you're so worried about your survival, the next day.
[00:37:02] Steven Johnson:
[00:37:03] Saru Jayaraman:
Your ability to feed your children that day.
[00:37:05] Steven Johnson:
That's a very powerful message. We have a question that we ask, uh, all our guests on this show, and I'm particularly interested to hear what you would say to this, which is in your field generally what is the, the unsolved problem that you're most kind of curious about seeing the answer emerging? You know, if you could fast forward 10 years, um, what would be the mystery that you'd be most interested in seeing the, the resolution of?
[00:37:32] Saru Jayaraman:
Yeah, well, I'm sorry that it's, it's a little bit of a repeat of things I said, but, uh, I think the fundamental problem in this country, not just on this issue, but on so many issues, is the power and control of corporations and corporate trade lobbies over our democracy and the inability of elected officials to follow the will of the majority of Americans on pretty much every issue because of these corporate trade lobbies.
And what will be interesting to watch over the next 10 years is how elected officials who frankly have been so cowardly to roll over to their interests and needs, then change their attitudes based on the Restaurant Association's change in behavior.
That is what we need to see on our issue. It's what we need to see with the Rifle Association, you know, fossil fuel industry with regard to climate change. I mean, there's so many issues where, again, it, we have to keep reminding ourselves there's a big lie. The lie is that we are polarized and divided as a country.
And I, and that week I spent in Michigan, uh, earlier in the summer, I, I mean, it was so moving, you know, me, a brown woman coming from California, talking to white people in rural Michigan who not only didn't react to me in the ways that I thought they would but again said, “Where can I sign? I wanna sign. I agree with you. This is wrong.”
It tells me we are not polarized and divided. We are being told we're polarized and divided. We are truly polarized and divided from our elected officials who are in the pockets of these corporate trade lobbies. And, uh, we have to do everything in our power to keep, uh, demanding the will of the majority because that is supposedly what a democracy is. It is will of the majority.
[00:39:16] Steven Johnson:
I wanted, I wanted to leave just with, with a question that I'm sure a lot of our listeners are, are wondering about: for those of us who are not working in the industry, but are, one, are, are voters, but, but also who are consumers who go to restaurants, um, and who are potentially persuaded by the, the, the case you've been making today. What's your guidance for them? How, how can they get involved in, and how can they participate in this, in, in this struggle?
[00:39:48] Saru Jayaraman:
Yeah. Well, I think it's a great moment for consumers to have power because so many restaurants are raising wages right now. Maybe some of them think they'll be able to go back to sub-minimum wages next year, but it's not gonna happen.
So as consumers, I think we can go to restaurants that are paying more wages and say, “Hey, I love this. Wanna see you keep doing this.” And then go to restaurants that haven't raised wages and say, “I wanna see you do the same.” And the way to do that, we've been maintaining a growing list of these restaurants on our website, H-I-G-H: highroadrestaurants.org.
Uh, you can go there, you'll find a map. You can put in your region. You'll see restaurants in your region that are and have raised their wages, uh, and you can definitely support them. Please support them. Tell them you're coming because they're paying more and you wanna see them. Keep doing it. But don't just do that. Please go to wherever you normally go to or other restaurants and say to them, “Hey, I pay attention to this list of restaurants that are raising wages. I wanna see you on this list.” That is one of the most powerful things you can do as a consumer.
Don't say it to your server. They have no power. Say it to the manager or the owner at the end of your meal. You have, you know, if manager or owner hearing that from several consumers, we know will have an impact. Look at sustainable and organic food. I remember 20 years ago restaurants saying, “I can't afford that. That's ridiculous.”
Now everybody's jumping over themselves to say, I provide locally sourced sustainable, you know, biodynamic food. Um, all because consumers demanded it. So it is totally possible for consumers to say applause for people who are raising wages during pandemic, understanding this is the future of the industry and I wanna see these other restaurants that I love do the same.
[00:41:32] Steven Johnson:
Saru Jayaraman, thank you so much for reminding us that positive change is in fact possible and, and more of it may be imminent if we, uh, follow in your lead. Uh, we're really inspired by the work you've done. Thanks for, thanks for being on the show.
[00:41:44] Saru Jayaraman:
Thank you so much.
[00:41:49] Steven Johnson:
The TED interview is part of the TED Audio Collective. This episode was produced by Dan O'Donnell. Sammy Case is our story editor. Fact-Checking by Christian Aparda. Farrah Desgranges is our project manager. Constanza Gallardo is our managing producer, and Gretta Cohn is our executive producer. Special thanks to Michelle Quint and Anna Phelan.
I'm your host, Steven Johnson. For more info on my other projects, including my latest book, Extra Life, you can follow me on Twitter at @stevenbjohnson or sign up for my Substack newsletter: Adjacent Possible.