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Where to Eat If You Want to Support Restaurants That Pay Their Workers a Living Wage

There are a growing number of owners championing worker-friendly policies—through living wages and other policies.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Restaurant Opportunities Centers United

 
 
 
 

 

Good ole’ Costco made national news again during this year’s State of the Union. Why? Because Costco is a corporate empire that pays livable wages.

Unfortunately, this type of business model is treated as if it’s an endangered species, even more so within the restaurant industry. With 13 million employees nationwide and  six of the 10 lowest paying jobs in the country, the restaurant industry can be a rather unpleasant place.

However, there are a growing number of restaurant owners championing Costco-like policies—living wages for their tipped and non-tipped staff, paid sick days, and other worker-friendly policies. Despite corporate America telling us that raising wages will kill jobs, these restaurants are extraordinarily successful. At Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), we call them “high road” restaurants; and these owners would tell you themselves that living wages are good business.

Let’s start with Miami’s  Choices Vegan Cafe. Their food is organic, products recycled and/or compostable, and chemicals minimal. Just as importantly, their sustainable ethos carries over to labor practices. Although Florida’s minimum hourly wage for tipped workers is just $4.91, Choices Vegan Cafe starts all tipped workers off at $8.50. In fact, they never even considered paying tipped workers the bare minimum. Lori Zito, Senior Director, says, “If we can do it, anybody can.” They’re gearing up to open another location within the next month.

Ann Arbor Michigan’s  Zingerman’s is a family-run chain with nearly 600 employees. From day one, they have paid well above the federal minimum wage and offered company-subsidized health care and paid time off. According to Paul Saginaw, one of 16 partners, “We have never considered these critical costs of doing business obstacles to profitability or our annual compounded growth rate of 10 percent.”

In 1997, Johnny Livesay started out as a busboy. Today he’s a founding member of  Black Star Co-op in Austin, Texas. “Paying people well for the work they do is just the right thing to do,” he says. Their business model doesn’t allow tips, everyone makes a living wage after their first three months, and they encourage ownership of the business. “People should be able to afford to take care of their loved ones regardless of their jobs,” Livesay says. “It's not fair to pay so little to workers making your money for you.” Black Star Co-op thrives in Texas, one of many states where it is still legal to pay tipped workers $2.13 an hour.

In Los Angeles, one of the largest restaurant industries in the US, Diep Tran owns and operates the popular  Good Girl Dinette . California is one of few states that has eliminated the tip credit, requiring all workers to be paid a minimum of $9.00 an hour. All her employees start above the minimum wage. “What’s a sustainable restaurant?” Tran asks, “It’s one in which as the restaurant grows, the people grow with it.”

It’s especially significant that all these restaurants employ tipped workers. Fervent lobbying by the corporate restaurant lobby, the National Restaurant Association, has kept the federal tipped minimum wage stuck at $2.13 an hour since 1991. As a result, servers—a majority of whom are women—use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the workforce and are three-times as likely to live in poverty. They typically get $0 paychecks because their base wage is swiftly eaten up by taxes. Although labor laws require owners to ante up and pay their staff the federal or slightly higher (where applicable) minimum wage when tips don’t fill the gap, enforcement is alarming sparse.  According to research from the Economic Policy Institute, employers have a .001 percent chance of being investigated in a given year, making wage theft pretty common, and easy to get away with. If you’re familiar with living paycheck-to-paycheck, servers are quite literally  living shift-to-shift.