$2.83 an Hour Plus Tips at Olive Garden Is a Poverty Wage and Must Change

I live off tips and a sub-minimum wage of $2.83 an hour. As a mother to two young sons, I am barely scraping by. There have been plenty of nights where after a long day of serving unlimited breadsticks and Italian dishes to a stream of customers, I struggled to put food on my own table.

I’ve been a server at Olive Garden for two years -- 730 days of living off tips and Pennsylvania’s subminimum wage of $2.83. I’ve been “paid” a near $0 paycheck once a week 104 times. My co-workers and I work long hours for a multi-billion dollar restaurant corporation, never knowing if we’ll make enough to cover rent or afford visiting the doctor that month. You can see why it’s a little difficult to stomach Olive Garden’s slogan “We’re All Family Here.”

A couple days ago, I got on a plane for the first time in my life to travel from Pittsburgh, PA where I live with my children, my 3 ½ year old and 7 week old sons, to Orlando, Florida. Tomorrow, I will be at the shareholders meeting of the largest full-service restaurant corporation in the world, Olive Garden parent company, Darden Restaurants Inc. I could quit, but Darden’s size and influence sets wage and employment standards for the entire restaurant industry. To make it better out there for servers like me, Darden needs to change.

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Kelly Ditson is a server at Olive Garden and a member of the Dignity at Darden campaign.

Many of my fellow Darden employees agree. I’m part of the largest organized community of Darden employees who want to see genuine change in the company’s wages and employment practices -- we call ourselves ‘Dignity At Darden.’

When Starboard Value, a hedge fund, hand-picked a brand new board for Darden a year ago, then Olive Garden employee and Dignity At Darden campaign leader, Steve Gazzo, launched a petition, “Darden: We Want A Seat At The Table,” urging the company to include fellow Darden employees -- servers, cooks, bussers, bartenders, and hosts -- in helping to shape  the future of the company. The petition quickly received nearly 7,000 signatures from fellow Darden employees. And at last year’s shareholders meeting, which Dignity At Darden leaders attended, the new board chair, Jeff Smith, promised to “improve value for guests and employees.”

Dignity At Darden campaign leaders returned to work willing to give the new board an opportunity to demonstrate that it was in fact different and would listen to our concerns. But in those 12 months, Dignity At Darden’s actions and my personal concerns for fair pay and treatment have been ignored by Jeff Smith and the new Darden CEO Gene Lee.

When Darden employees spoke up about their frustration with the company’s elimination of auto-gratuity (it was eliminated in January 2014), CEO Gene Lee defended the decision by saying he asked 100 or so servers who approved of the change. It might not seem like much, but when a large party takes up a lot of your shift, those tips make a big difference -- we depend on those tips to pay for rent, food, childcare, and other bills. To make our point, we launched another petition to show Gene Lee and Jeff Smith that thousands of Darden workers want to #BringBackAutoGrat. It has been signed by more than 4,500 Darden employees -- nearly 50 times more than the handful Gene Lee used to justify eliminating autogratuity -- and has there been any response from Jeff Smith or Darden? No.

It feels a lot like Jeff Smith and Gene Lee are sacrificing the well-being of their employees to increase short-term shareholder value for the 1% through real-estate lease back schemes and breadstick promotions.

That’s why I’m among the Darden employees that will be at this year’s shareholders meeting on September 17th. Darden’s CEO Gene Lee, board chair Jeff Smith, and Darden’s shareholders will see that we are real. Our physical presence states our objection to poverty wages and our demand to be active participants in this company. By being at the shareholders meeting, Dignity At Darden campaign leaders will see that those who are in control of our financial fate are just people too, they’re mortal humans capable of compassion.

I have always been a very firm believer that actions speak louder than words, however when it comes to important issues I have kind of lingered in the background, present but not necessarily active. I want to fight as hard as I can for what I believe in, so that my family will know that I was not another hypocrite who just shook her head at the injustice around us. I need my sons to know that I actually tried to do my part in advocating for those of us struggling and too afraid to fight.

To all my Darden coworkers: if we want things to change, we will make it happen. A fair wage, fair employment practices and reinstating auto-gratuity are all things that can be accomplished. It may sound silly to say but you have to actually show up to a fight to win. And guess what? There are more of us than them.


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