Thursday, May 14, 2020

COVID-19 & Race: Building Power Through Crisis. May 2020

This week’s COVID-19 and Race Commentary looks at lingering inequities within the service industry and opportunities for reshaping the sector for equity and collective prosperity, organizing within this Covid-19 era, and more of the latest news about the pandemic's impact on people of color and strategies for an equitable recovery.

Issue No 5. May 13, 2020

Building Power Through Crisis

By Saru Jayaraman

COVID-19 has revealed the deep structural inequities of the service sector and created a tremendous opportunity to organize workers and employers for the change we always needed. There is no going back. We can only go forward together and reimagine an industry in which all thrive.  

Before the pandemic, more than 15 million people worked in restaurants across the United States, and many of them relied on tips. There are about six million tipped workers nationwide, working in car washes, nail salons, hair salons, and other businesses in addition to food service. Seventy percent of tipped workers are women, disproportionately women of color. They suffer from three times the poverty rate of the rest of the US workforce, and experience the worst sexual harassment of any workers because they are forced to tolerate inappropriate customer behavior in order to feed their families in tips. 

The restaurant industry has argued since emancipation that owners should be able to pay tipped employees a sub-minimum wage. Today that wage is just $2.13 an hour federally, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The sub-minimum wage has resulted in a horrific experience for tipped workers trying to survive the COVID-19 economic shutdown. We estimate that between 4.5 and 9 million restaurant and other tipped workers have already lost their jobs. Most do not qualify for unemployment insurance because their wages are lower than the minimum threshold. In other words, they’re penalized because their employers pay them so little.  

Seven states have rejected this legacy of slavery and pay One Fair Wage, a full minimum wage with tips on top to all tipped workers. These states have comparable or higher job growth and tipping averages than states with lower wages for tipped workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and half the rate of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. One Fair Wage, the organization I lead, has been fighting to ensure the nation follows the leadership of these states.  

Organizing in a Pandemic  

We launched the One Fair Wage Emergency Fund on March 16 to provide cash relief to low-wage service workers. It has exceeded 160,000 worker applicants in the past month, largely from people of color, single mothers, immigrants, and young people. We have raised over $20 million to aid workers and we’ve built an army of almost 1,000 volunteers. They call each worker to screen for need and offer the opportunity to join the fight for One Fair Wage and register to vote.  

Most importantly, we are organizing thousands of workers into large national and state tele-town halls and virtual rallies with Congress members, governors, and state legislators. 
These events allow workers to raise their voices and demand they receive a fair wage before they go back to work. In this new and challenging moment for the nation, our emergency fund provides a clear pathway for organizing and voter mobilization that engages hard-to-reach populations, and for developing leadership to change the issues that needed to be changed long before the pandemic.

A New Way Forward for the Service Sector  

But we aren’t only organizing workers. We are also ensuring that responsible restaurant owners who care about their workers survive the crisis and reshape the sector. Several restaurant owners who previously opposed or were hesitant about our efforts are now willing to commit to One Fair Wage and increased equity. Some now recognize the old business model is not sustainable; others are seizing the opportunity to break free from a model they couldn’t previously see how to change.  

We have worked with California’s Governor Newsom and officials in other states and cities to launch High Road Kitchens. Restaurants that voluntarily commit to move to One Fair Wage and greater racial and gender equity would receive public and private dollars to rehire their workers and serve as community kitchens, providing free meals to those who need them.

The pandemic is both the gravest crisis in the service sector’s history and the greatest moment for transformation — for building power among workers and advancing change among employers toward a sustainable future of equity and collective prosperity.

– Saru Jayaraman is President of One Fair Wage. To support workers and high-road restaurants, visit

Highlights from the News, Analysis, and Commentary

As the pandemic drags on, the plight worsens for millions of workers who are deemed essential but treated as expendable. Now more of these workers are speaking out. “I don’t like the term essential worker,” John Deranamie, a Liberian man who works in a South Dakota meatpacking plant and contracted COVID-19, tells USA Today.

National Nurses United, the nation’s largest union of registered nurses, staged a protest outside the White House, demanding federal action to increase production of personal protective equipment, set binding workplace safety standards for nurses, and ensure eligibility for workers’ compensation and other benefits, DCist reports. The group laid 88 pairs of white rubber clogs on a walkway in memoriam to the 88 RNs known to have died from COVID-19.

Please share with your networks, send your ideas and feedback, and follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram using hashtag #COVIDandRace

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