Menu Bar

Home           Calendar           Topics          Just Charlestown          About Us

Friday, October 21, 2016

URI Honors Colloquium welcomes food labor researcher

Jayaraman to discuss effects of low-wage tip employment on women, minorities

Jayaraman, co-founder Restaurant Opportunities Centers UnitedSaru Jayaraman, a food labor researcher at the University of California-Berkeley and co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, will speak Tuesday, Oct. 25, at the URI Honors Colloquium, “Inequality and the American Dream.”

Jayaraman, who co-founded Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, will discuss how low-wage, tip-based employment disproportionately affects women and minorities at the free public lecture at 7 p.m. in Edwards Hall, 64 Upper College Road.

Jayaraman, together with displaced World Trade Center workers, co-founded the organization after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Restaurant Opportunities Centers United now has more than 18,000 worker members, 200 employer partners, and several thousand consumer members in a dozen states nationwide. The story of Jayaraman and her co-founder’s work building the organization has been chronicled in the book The Accidental American.

Jayaraman will speak at URI about the fact that while the restaurant industry is one of the largest and fastest growing sectors of the American economy, it is also the lowest paying, and has been since restaurant owners were allowed to hire free slaves after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 for no pay, forcing them to live on customer tips.

Tip-earning employment has persisted to this day, affecting more than 11 million workers. As such, Jayaraman and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United advocate for One Fair Wage legislation, which would eliminate the lower minimum wage for workers who earn tips. Such legislation is working its way through government in eight states and the U.S. Congress.

The University asked her a few questions about her work and her upcoming lecture:

Q: What sparked the idea to found Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and what was your biggest challenge getting it off the ground?

A: We founded Restaurant Opportunities Centers United after the terror attacks of September 11 together with displaced World Trade Center restaurant workers as a relief center. It quickly grew into so much more as a result of demand — there had never been a center for restaurant workers before in New York City.

Q: How did you end up pursuing a career path that involved researching the food labor industry?

A: September 11 landed me in the restaurant industry, and that was the start of looking at food labor. 

Q: Given its roots in slavery, why do you think low-wage tip employment continues to this day?

A: Money, power and the influence of the industry trade lobby.

Q: Does One Fair Wage legislation face a significant challenge from inertia, and the generally accepted American custom of tipping?

A: No. The campaign is not to eliminate tipping — it is to eliminate the lower wage for tipped workers. The seven states that have already done this face higher restaurant sales per capita, faster growth among servers and all restaurant workers, and higher rates of tipping than Rhode Island and the 43 states with lower wages for tipped workers. The challenge comes from the money, power and influence of the National Restaurant Association, which seeks to keep wages as low as inhumanely possible. Americans, when they learn about this issue, generally are outraged that their tips are subsidizing multi-million dollar corporations.

Q: How does low-wage tip employment disproportionately affect women and minorities?

A: Seventy percent of tipped workers in America are women, and disproportionately women of color. They face the worst sexual harassment of any industry because they have to tolerate inappropriate customer behavior to earn their income in tips. 

Jayaraman authored national bestseller Behind the Kitchen Door, a groundbreaking exploration of the political, economic, and moral implications of dining out, and she has appeared on CNN with Soledad O’Brien, “Bill Moyers Journal” on PBS, “Melissa Harris-Perry” and “UP with Chris Hayes” on MSNBC, “Real Time with Bill Maher” on HBO, “The Today Show,” and NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.  Her most recent book isForked: A New Standard for American Dining, published by Oxford University Press in 2016.

Jayaraman has been profiled by The New York Times more than once (most recently in February 2016), she earned a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award in 2015, and was recognized as a Champion of Change by the White House in 2014. She was listed among CNN’s “Top 10 Visionary Women” in 2014 and was named one of Crain’s “40 Under 40” in 2008. She is a graduate of Yale Law School and the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government.