Saru Jayaraman Q&A

Saru Jayaraman

Total Food Service sat down with Saru Jayaraman, Co-Founder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, to talk about her company’s origins, agendas, and next steps.

What prompted the creation of ROC United?

9/11, on September 11, there was a restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center, Tower 1. And there were 72 workers who died that morning in the restaurant. And about 250 workers who lost their jobs. And so we started the organization initially to support the workers who had lost their jobs. But we were soon overwhelmed with calls for help from workers. First from all over the city and then all over the country. And that’s how ROC grew.

Were you working for David O’Neil at the time?

No, my cofounder was Mandu. He was a waiter in the restaurant. I was an organizer and an attorney, so I wasn’t working for David at the time.

Can you give me a quick overview on your background?

I have a law degree. My parents are immigrants and I was organizing immigrant workers for several years, and then on 9/11, I got a call from the union that was inside that restaurant asking if I could help the workers. They were no longer members in the union. They wanted to know if I could step in and support those workers. I didn’t end up working for the union, but they needed somebody to help those workers so I stepped in. People who were members of the union then became a part of the ROC.

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Is ROC United in fact a union, or a movement?

No, it’s a non-profit organization, a workers’ association.

How has the agenda evolved over the 10 plus years that you’ve been at this?

The agenda has always been to try to improve wages and working conditions for workers in this industry. Fortunately, it’s the largest private sector employer in the country with the lowest paying jobs in the country, raising wages and working conditions. Over the last 12 years it’s evolved because we’ve come to realize and document how improving wages and working conditions are actually good not just for workers but also for employers themselves and for consumers.

And so our mission has evolved from just supporting workers to actually now building a better industry for all workers, employers, and consumers. So we support employers who are trying to do the right thing. We provide them with support, and technical assistance. We lift up the voices of consumers, and show them how they’re impacted by these issues. We provide consumers a tool and information to help them make good you know, dining choices, and support workers in these issues.

What is the definition of doing the right thing? If I’m a restaurateur, what is doing the right thing?

There are three criteria. One is paying a minimum wage for tipped workers of at least $5. For non-tipped workers, of at least $9. Providing at least a few paid sick days so that workers don’t have to make a choice between their health and their job. And then providing workers with opportunities for advancement. Helping them move up the ladder, so that an immigrant busser could become a waiter. It’s not an impossibility, as it is in a lot of restaurants.

Which kind of puts you in an interesting position relative to what’s going on with the debate over the minimum wage right now. It sounds to me like you’re really not necessarily pro maximizing the minimum wage, as much as you are creating a fair wage. That enables somebody to get in the door and then to grow. Is that correct? Incorrect?

Are you referring to Obama’s statement in the State of the Union? I think it’s a multifaceted question, in other words yes we are asking for a fair wage, and that is the wage that Obama mentioned in the State of the Union. You know, we are supportive of raising the minimum wage at the federal level, which are currently $2.13 and $7.25 for non-tipped workers. And we feel that neither of those rates are fair. You know, $2.13 is not going to get anybody anything. People take home paychecks of 0. New York is $5 tipped minimum wage. At the federal level $7.25 is too little. We need that to go up to at least $9. That’s what we’re advocating for, 5 and 9 at the moment. Especially in New York.

What you say sounds very fair. Why was there a recent full-page ad in U.S.A. Today? What’s the problem? Why is it so hot and cold, black and white? What’s missing? I mean is every restaurateur out to hurt every worker that works for them? What am I missing? What’s wrong?  

No. Absolutely not. We have so many great restaurant owners who are doing the right thing. You know, if you look at our guide, you’ll see award winners that range from Tom Colicchio to small mom and pop restaurants. I think, unfortunately, there are some big restaurant corporations that just don’t want to be changed. They see short-term profits at the expense of long-term sustainability. And I think that was true at the beginning of discussions around local and organic and biodynamic.

You know, restaurants really didn’t want to make that investment because it seemed expensive. But over time more and more restaurants caught on and thought wow this is actually good business to actually provide locally sourced and organic. And so we think that in the long run they’re going to see that it’s good business to pay your workers a fare wage that can provide a paycheck. That it’s not good business to have sick workers who infect customers and poor workers who are homeless. That it’s not good business that this is a trend. I think right now there’s opposition just because it’s a big change. It feels like more money out of their pocketbooks.
There’s not this kind of long-term view that in the long run, this investment in our workers could pay off. It would seem to be that if you’re going to spend the money, for instance let’s take a Danny Meyer and his group that you’re going to spend the money on. You’re going to train people and put them on the floor then why in the world would you not compensate them. I’ve got to be missing something here.

Exactly it’s pretty straight forward. What about this program that you ran in Washington last week? What were your goals for that program? Did you accomplish those goals?

We were calling attention to the issue of the tipped minimum wage being $2.13. We were with Congress. The date was 2/13. We have an annual day of action every 2/13 to highlight the fact that the tipped minimum wage is $2.13.

This year, we did it in Congress together with Congresswoman Donna Edwards and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, both of whom called for a raise. It was local. They’re local for us here. They are our local Congresswomen. They both were with us, calling for an increase to the tip minimum wage; calling for paid sick days and Donna Edwards introduced a bill called the Wages Act that would actually increase the tip minimum wage. So that’s what we did, we got a lot of attention for that, and I think, the more that people know the fact that the tip minimum wage is $2.13, the better. But people just think it’s an outrage you know. We know it will change.

What did you come away with in terms of what the reaction was by other legislators that you talked to? Was there any sort of positive response?

A lot of legislators received it very favorably, and we got a lot of press. We were on CNN and Bill Moyers’ show and we were also on CBS Evening News. So we got quite a bit of press, and yes, legislators received it very favorably and we think the time has come. It’s finally going to move and I think we’re picking up momentum.

I would assume that the National Restaurant Association also came out in mass and had something to say about this. I’m curious what their position on this is and if there is any room for compromise or dialogue between you and them.

There isn’t at the moment, but we would love there to be. We would be thrilled to sit down with them and talk about it, but thus far; they have been very opposed to the rate going up. They were not there but they have been very opposed to it.

Is there anybody in particular at the NRA that you would like to see come to the table to talk to you about this?

We’d love to sit down with Dawn Sweeney. We’d love to have people who know her and who I think are trying to help us sit down with her. But we think there’s potential, we are very open to meeting and talking and explaining why we think this is good business, and how we can work together.

Have they proposed anything that’s an alternative to a tip minimum wage? Have they proposed a response to what it is that you want to do?  

No. Thus far the only response has been that raising the wage at all from $2.13 would be bad for business. Would kill business, would make food unaffordable. And there’s just too many states, New York being one, California being another, that are thriving industries where it’s much higher. They automatically disprove. The federal minimum wage is just far behind the times.

Should this be a state issue and not a federal issue? In other words, obviously the restaurateur in New York and this Darden unit in Kansas that seems to be in your crosshairs. They’re obviously very different.

We are the pro. Right now the people working on 213 are the poorest workers in America. They live on food stamps and Medicaid and people shouldn’t be working full time and still have to rely on welfare, you know. So regardless of where you live, the fact that you’ve got people living in real dire poverty on this wage means it’s time for a change. Time for it to go up. If we went state-by-state it would take forever and it might never happen. Congress needs to step in and take action on anything at this point, in my humble opinion. Pick an issue. Tomorrow will be called Wednesday. They’ll come up with a reason why it shouldn’t be Wednesday.

What would you like to see happen with paid sick days?  

We have several local fights for paid sick days. We have several places here in Philadelphia, in Miami, in Portland. There’s movement on the ground in Los Angeles. I mean, all over the country, there are local battles for local paid sick day ordinances. That’s really what we’re trying to win.

So give me a compilation. What’s fair? What works? What would you like to see if you had a San Francisco and in the state of Connecticut, which is the first state in the union to have paid sick days?

It’s essentially earned sick leave, so the more you work, the more sick days you have, up to 9 sick days, based on how much you work. So you accrue it based on your hours. So both part-time and full-time employees get it. But full-time employees obviously get more because they earned it over time. And what we found in those places, San Francisco and other places, is that people don’t actually use all their sick time. They use it when they’re sick. And so it doesn’t actually cost employers as much as they think it will. Most importantly, it’s a public health issue. You know. It doesn’t just impact the workers. It really impacts the customers.

I want to go back to Darden for a second. Are they enemy number 1 as you look at this thing?  

No, not at all. You know, what we’re trying to do is change this industry, and if Darden were to want to work with us, to sit down and do better, fabulous. We just are calling on them because they’re industry leaders, to set a different standard to pay their workers a fair wage, to provide paid sick days because we think they’re leaders, and as leaders they have a responsibility to set a different standard. If they want to work with us, fabulous. Nobody’s evil, nobody’s perfect, you know it’s all about everybody moving along a ladder. Providing more sustainable wages and working conditions for people in this industry.
And it’s interesting, too. If you look at their CEO, he’s a classic example of rags to riches type of story. If only they would allow more of their workers that same opportunity, that would be great.

What about your affiliation with other groups, like, Color of Change and Credo? Talk to me about where that stands. What do you look for within those collaborations?  

Well, they’ve been supportive in calling upon Darden to do the right thing. To provide paid sick days. To provide more opportunities for advancement for workers of color. To raise their wages to provide a fair wage of at least $5 for tipped workers so they’re supportive. They’ve delivered petitions to the restaurants. You know, people who eat at their restaurants are saying: We’re customers. We’d like to see these things change.

You mentioned some operators that are doing a good job with their employees. Anybody come to mind in the New York City market?

Tom Colicchio is a fabulous employer, a wonderful employer, and a very good employer. One If By Land, Two if By Sea as well.

What is Colicchio doing to make him proactive on behalf of ROC? 

He’s really good about this. He has great wages, great promotion opportunities for workers. He really invests in people moving up the ladder, starting as a dishwasher and ending up as a fine dining server. Regardless of their race or gender, you know. He really invests in people. That’s great. They provide some vacation time, some leave time. We think they’re really good employers. They’re smaller restaurants. It doesn’t have to be the big guys.

Small restaurants like One If By Land, Two If By Sea is a restaurant in New York that does really well. La Palapa is a Mexican restaurant in the village, that is a really fabulous employer, provides paid sick days for their employees.

I don’t hear Danny Meyer in this conversation, I don’t hear Steve Hanson.

Oh, no, they’re great. I just didn’t want it to be all the big guys, because then the argument is, oh, well, they can afford it. I’m a tiny operator. I can’t afford it. When the truth is everybody can do it, and we have examples to prove that they can. In time you guys are going to be a lot better served by holding on to a great employee.

I want to go back to this ad in USA Today for a second. You’ve been accused of being intent on un-unionizing. Is that true? Is that false? Are there advantages? Are there disadvantages? I guess the first thing that comes to mind is what happened at Tavern on the Green, etc. Talk to me about that for a second. Should the restaurant industry be unionized? Would there be advantages to it?

I think the point for us isn’t union or non-union. It’s simply that workers have enough voice on the job to be able to speak up when their rights are being violated and to have a fair wage and benefits so they are able to support their families and live a decent and respectable and dignified life and I think ultimately the industry wants that too. Really the question for us is not: “is this union, is it not union, or should it be unionized or not, it’s simply, fairness.” Well, let’s work together to make sure workers in this industry have fair wages, the benefits they need to not have to come to work when they’re sick, the opportunities to move up the ladder to support their families. To be able to advance like anybody else who wants the opportunity to move up the ladder.

What is this customer harassment thing, and this guide and explain why it’s a positive and not a negative?

The guide is simply a tool. All we’re asking of our customers is the same way they’ve spoken up over the years. Saying is this local? Is this organic? I prefer local. I prefer organic. Like that, we’re asking, we’re calling upon consumers to understand how these issues impact their dining experience and to say, when they eat out, love the food, love the service. Would love to see you provide paid sick days. It’s important to me as a consumer that you pay a fair wage. That’s all we’re asking of consumers. To use the guide to get information. We’re not telling people not to eat out anywhere. We’re telling everybody eat out everywhere all the time. Continue to eat out at Darden and everywhere else. Just speak up when you do, at the end of your meal. Say, I loved the meal, loved the service.

I would actually love to see opportunities for my great busser to become a waiter. I would love to see my waiter paid more than $2.13 an hour. That’s the kind of thing we want people to say.

To learn more about Saru Jayaraman, please visit her website.