Last week, I attended the annual RAISE (Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards in Employment) conference in Washington, D.C. This was our fifth year to come together to oppose the National Restaurant Association, and their efforts to maintain low wages for restaurant workers. This year’s trip to Capitol Hill was more productive than I expected, given the current political climate. It was also the first year that we weren’t the only restaurant from Texas represented, which gave us an opportunity to lobby Texas representatives for the first time. Members of RAISE convened in D.C. from all over the country to share stories and advice on business practices, discuss the Sanctuary Restaurant movement, and to lobby Congress regarding One Fare Wage initiatives in the House and Senate.
The One Fair Wage movement is working towards eliminating the current two tier wage structure that separates tipped and non tipped workers wages. The current federal minimum wage for tipped workers has maintained a low of $2.13 an hour since 1991, a system that allows restaurants to profit from underpaying their workers and allowing for customers to pay them instead. Restaurants are obligated to ensure that workers wages equal $7.25 an hour when tips fall short of supplementing their low base pay, but this system is often neglected and abused. Last year, in Travis County, the Department of Labor investigated a low sampling of 60 Austin area restaurants that they had received complaints about, and found that the restaurants owed workers $330,000 for wage infractions ranging from not making up the minimum wage, illegal tip pools, and straight wages when overtime wages are due.
Joining me this year from Austin, was Owner and General Manager of Loca D’Oro in the Mueller development, Adam Orman. Together we visited both of our representatives, Lloyd Doggett (D-35th dist.), and Bill Flores (R-17th dist). We got to meet with Rep. Doggett, which is unusual, but a great opportunity as he is an ally in the fight for wage reform. As a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, he is familiar with the One Fair Wage campaign, and is interested in helping where he can. Our meeting with Rep. Flores’s staff was interesting, as they were not educated on how low tipped wages are, and how, as the representative of a highly rural area, this low wage negatively affects their constituents. Overall, I felt that the meeting was a success, and despite the party line opposition to wage iniatives, I feel they were genuinely earnest in expressing concern for how low tipped wages affected folks in their district.
We also held two hearings, one in the House with Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus staff, and one in the Senate with Senator Patty Murray of Washington and staff from Sanders, Durbin, Udall, Hirono, and Warren’s offices. Rep. Ellison has been working with us for the past few years, and is an extremely important ally now that he is the Co-Chair of the DNC. One of my panel-mates was a the owner of a bakery in Ellison’s district that he’s held fundraiser at, which was pretty cool. Senator Murray had a bill in play in the last Congress to raise both the tipped and non-tipped minimum wages that died.
As you know, Black Star Co-op has committed to paying living wages since we opened in 2010, and has never accepted gratuities. We have long been at the forefront of this movement. Compared to several of our allies involved in RAISE, Black Star is farther along in it’s life cycle, and we are able to tell the cautionary tale of what happens when sales slow, and you're operating on High Road business practices: that it is very difficult to do the right thing by your workers when you are operating on an uneven playing field in a depressed sales climate. Even though we have chosen a pay structure that ensures we provide good wages and benefits to our workers voluntarily, it is difficult to tolerate that our business can be in jeopardy because of value and ethically driven wages, doing the right thing.