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Behind the Kitchen Door: Restaurant Workers’ Fight for Justice


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foodAmericans eat out more than any other people. But the workers who put food on our restaurant tables are struggling to feed themselves and their families. On this edition, Saru Jayaraman, co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and author of “Behind the Kitchen Door” makes the case for bringing justice to restaurants and how ordinary diners can help.


Saru Jayaraman, co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and author of “Behind the Kitchen Door”

For More Information:

Saru Jayaraman
Restaurant Opportunities Centers United @rocunited
Living Off Tips Campaign
Workers ROC the Restaurant Industry
How the Restaurant Lobby Makes Sure Fast-Food Workers Get Poverty Wages
Raise the Minimum Wage
Giants Fans Bring Their Own Lunches To Support Concessions Workers’ Strike
For Restaurant Workers, A Struggle To Put Food On The Table
ReWork Radio at KPFA has related interviews



Episode Transcript


  • This week on Making Contact.
  • So I ask you, what is it called in any other context when an employer hires somebody and doesn’t feel like they have to pay them? That’s called slavery.

  • Next time you’re out enjoying a meal at your favorite restaurant, pay some thought to the people serving you. They may not be getting paid much at all.

  • Servers in America have three times the poverty rate of the rest of the US workforce and use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the US workforce, which means that people who bring and put food on our tables cannot afford to put food on their own family’s tables.

  • On this edition, Saru Jayaraman, cofounder and codirector of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and author of Behind the Kitchen Door talks about the struggle to bring justice to restaurants across America. I’m George Lavender. And you’re listening to Making Contact.

  • We as Americans– we eat out more than any other people on earth. That’s increasingly so. Even during the last couple of years of economic crisis, we have continued to eat out as Americans. And actually, we tend to celebrate our culture in American restaurants more than anywhere else– so birthdays, anniversaries, weddings. I was proposed to in a restaurant. Maybe many of you were.

Many of us in America can remember these extraordinary moments in our lives that happen in restaurants. And yet very few of us can remember the people who touched our food in those extraordinary moments. And if you think about the act of cooking and serving at home, if you think about who does that for you in your home, it’s typically somebody you love– a parent, a lover, somebody you care about, somebody you know about. Those are the people touching your food in your home.

In a restaurant, you’re having this wonderful, special moment. But the people who are touching your food are completely invisible to you, and almost purposefully so. I argue that most of us interact with these people every day, all day and yet know so little about what’s actually happening behind the kitchen door.

So for me, that changed very dramatically on September 11. A lot of things changed in America on 9/11. A lot of people’s lives changed on 9/11. My life changed. And my dining experience changed on September 11, 2001.

Because on 9/11, there was a restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center Tower One. It was on the 107th floor of Tower One. It was called Windows on the World. It was way up in the sky above the clouds. And about 250 workers worked in that restaurant.

And on that morning when the plane hit the first tower, 73 workers died. They were mostly immigrants from all over the world. They were preparing that morning’s meals. They were preparing, actually, for a huge banquet that was coming in later that day. And they all died.

They all were too high up in the building. People lower in the building ran out or were rescued. These folks actually were above where the plane hit. So they either jumped to their deaths, or they were incinerated in the restaurant. 250 workers lost their jobs. And about 13,000 restaurant workers lost their jobs in the months and weeks following the tragedy in 9/11.

There was a small union inside that restaurant, a very tiny union, because less than 0.001% of all restaurant workers in the United States belong to a union. And so this very tiny union didn’t have the capacity to support the workers who had lost their jobs or the families of the victims. And so in the aftermath of the tragedy just months after 9/11, we set up a little organization called the Restaurant Opportunities Center. And all we were doing was helping restaurant workers get back on their feet.

But we were so quickly overwhelmed with cries for help from restaurant workers, first from all over New York City and then from all over the country, that in 12 short years, we’ve grown into a national restaurant workers’ organization with now 10,000 members in 26 cities around the country, 100 restaurant employee partners, and several thousand consumer members around the country. We’ve grown so fast. And we’ve had to do so much in such little time because the workers have demanded it.

So we’ve won, actually, 13 campaigns against very large, high-profile, many celebrity chefs who unfortunately have been engaged in wage theft and tip theft, who have discriminated against workers, who have exploited them. So we’ve actually organized about 100 employers around the country. They range from celebrity chefs all the way down to small mom-and-pop restaurants all around the country that are trying to do the right thing, provide good wages and good working conditions. And still, they manage to make a profit.

We’ve won some local, state, and federal policy campaigns at the local level. We raised the minimum wage in New York State for tipped workers from $3 to $5. We won a bill in Philadelphia that makes it illegal to deduct credit card processing fees from workers’ tips, which, by the way, is legal everywhere else, which is why I encourage you to leave your tips in cash rather than on credit cards. So we’ve won some things.

But for me, the most extraordinary thing about the last 12 years since 9/11 has been getting to know the stories of thousands and thousands of workers around the country. 12 years ago as a New Yorker, I knew I should probably tip well. I was told I should tip around 20%. So that’s what I did.

I had no idea that for most workers in the United States– for most workers in the US– the tip is not actually on top of a wage. It is the wage. And that doesn’t come from God. Or it doesn’t fall from the sky. It is because of a man named Herman Cain.

Do you remember Herman Cain? Herman Cain was a nominee, right? Or he wanted to be a nominee in the Republican Party for president, formerly head of Godfather Pizza. And in 1996, he was the head of the National Restaurant Association, a very powerful trade lobbying group that we call “the other NRA.”

The other NRA, back in 1996 under Herman Cain’s leadership, struck a deal with Congress, saying that we the NRA will not oppose the overall minimum wage continuing to rise in Congress as long as the minimum wage for tipped workers stays frozen forever. And so it has. It’s been stuck at $2.13 for the last 22 years– not because these restaurants can’t afford to raise it, but because of a behind closed doors political deal that they struck back in 1996. So this was something I didn’t know.

12 years ago, I knew something about health and safety in restaurants. I think most of us have an idea about sanitation. I grew up in LA, where they actually put letter grades in windows of the restaurants to tell you how healthy or how sanitary is the restaurant.

I had no idea that 90% of restaurant workers in America do not have paid sick days, which means that 2/3 report cooking, preparing, and serving our food when they’re sick– not because they want to be sick on your food, but because they don’t have a choice. When you live on tips, you have to go to work. When you’re told you’ll be fired if you call out sick, you have to go to work. So I didn’t know that.

12 years ago, I had no idea that for the vast majority of workers in this industry, getting to even a livable-wage job is often a matter of your skin color or your gender. There are over 10 million restaurant workers in America. It is, in fact, neck and neck with retail as the largest and fastest growing sector of the US economy.

It is one of the only sectors the US economy that has grown over the last couple of years of economic crisis rather than decline. As every other sector of the economy went into the pits during the last couple of years, the restaurant industry continued to grow because we continued to eat out. The industry is doing great. And yet it also happens to be the employer of 7 of the 11 lowest-paying jobs in America.

And the two absolute lowest-paying jobs in America, lower than farm workers, lower than every other job you think of as a low-paying job– guess what– are restaurant jobs. That means that the largest and fastest growing sector of the US economy is proliferating the lowest-paying jobs in America. And that also means that these are the jobs that are now available in our economy because this is the growing industry. The growing industry is growing poverty.

Do you know that right now, one in four American workers works in a poverty-wage job? A poverty-wage job means they’re eligible for public assistance– one in four Americans. By 2020– that’s seven years from now– one in two Americans will work in a poverty-wage job. That means half of us. Half of us will be working in poverty. I’m not saying living in poverty. I’m saying working full time and living in poverty.

What does that mean for our economy and our ability to spend and our ability to grow as an economy? And where is that growth coming from? That growth entirely from one in four to one and two is coming entirely from the restaurant industry. And it is not because this industry is suffering from miserably low profit margins.

Guess what? The data shows that this industry across the board has four to five times the profit margin of Walmart– Walmart, which is considered to be a very profitable company. The restaurant industry has four to five times the profit margin of Walmart. This is a highly profitable industry that has struck a deal and proclaims proudly that they have won a billion dollars in exemptions for themselves from the minimum wage.

The National Restaurant Association proclaims as a benefit to their members, what have we won for you? We’ve won a billion dollars in exemptions. They’ve won a billion dollars in exemptions by not having to pay their own workers’ wages and expecting you, the people who eat out, to pay their workers’ wages for them.

So I ask you, what is it called in any other context when an employer hires somebody and doesn’t feel like they have to pay them? That’s called slavery. Because when you get a paycheck of $2.13 an hour, you get nothing.


  • We’ll be right back. You’re listening to Making Contact, a production of the National Radio Project. Because of generous support from listeners like you, this show is distributed for free to radio stations in the US, Canada, Australia, and South Africa.

To find out how to donate, download shows, or get our podcasts, go to Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Our handle is Making, underscore, Contact. We now return to Saru Jayaraman speaking at the Kansas City Public Library about her book Behind the Kitchen Door.

  • Let me tell you one of the stories in my book– a young woman named Claudia Muñoz, a leader in our organization, an immigrant from Mexico who worked at an IHOP in Houston, Texas, earning $2.13 an hour. Now, when you earn $2.13 an hour, federal law says that the restaurant is mandated to pay the difference between the minimum wage for tipped workers of $2.13 and the federal minimum wage of $7.25. So the restaurant is supposed to make up the difference between the tip minimum wage and the regular minimum wage.

But the IHOP, mega corporation that it is, and even though it’s illegal, told Claudia, we don’t want to have to be held liable for the nights that you don’t make up the difference in tips. We’re going to report that you’re earning $7.25 regardless of what you earn. So Claudia would go many days earning $2, $3, $4, many graveyard shifts when nobody would walk into the IHOP, where she earned no tips at all. And she was being taxed at $7.25 even when she was earning $2, $3 and $4 an hour.

And Claudia says, I was hungry. Guess what? Servers in America have three times the poverty rate of the rest of the US workforce and use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the US workforce, which means that people who bring and put food on our tables cannot afford to put food on their own family’s tables.

And they’re not rich steakhouse servers that you might see in New York City. The vast majority of servers in America are women. 70% of servers in America are women. They have children. They use these jobs to put food on their table. And they take great pride in hospitality.

So did Claudia. But Claudia was so hungry living on $2, $3, and $4 an hour. She would wait to get to the restaurant to eat pancakes. That was the only meal she could have.

One night, Claudia worked a whole graveyard shift at the IHOP. And at the end of the night, a couple walked out without paying the bill. And the IHOP, mega corporation that it is, and even though it’s illegal, required Claudia to pay for that bill, which was $20 more than all of the tips she had earned that whole night. And so Claudia ended up paying $20 for the luxury of having worked at the IHOP eight hours overnight. And she left that evening, crying.

And she said to me, you know, it’s one thing for me. I’m younger. I’m trying to go to graduate school. I’m trying to better myself. Maybe I’ll eventually go to law school.

But for the other women who worked alongside me, this was their career. They were mostly older. They had children. This was their livelihood. And this is how it was night after night. Some days you got tips. Some days you didn’t. Some years you could pay for Christmas. Some years you couldn’t.

If any of you have read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, you may remember a section of that book where she was a waitress in a diner. And it was that section where she actually lived in her car because she couldn’t afford to pay the rent. And I guarantee you, in almost every restaurant in America, there’s at least one person who is either homeless or what we call “home insecure.” They are struggling to pay the rent, living on somebody’s couch, living in a car, living with a friend, crashing on a boyfriend’s couch because they cannot continually pay the rent.

And these are not people who are not working. These are people who are working more than full time, sometimes putting several part-time jobs together to make ends meet. These are people who are working.

And as President Obama said in the State of the Union, in the United States of America, we should not be working full time or more than full time and living in poverty and relying on food stamps. What happened to the idea of, you get a job, and you can survive? Not in the restaurant industry. And that’s the industry that’s growing.

Another story in my book– a Korean immigrant, a young man named Woong Chang, was living in California. California is actually the largest and fastest-growing restaurant industry in the country. And guess what? In California, there is no difference between the minimum wage for tipped workers and the minimum wage for everybody else. It’s $8 across the board for everybody. And in San Francisco, it’s $10.50 for everybody. And those are the fastest-growing restaurant industries in the country.

So when we hear the National Restaurant Association saying, we can’t raise wages. It will kill the industry. The sky will fall, we say there are seven states in the country, including the largest and fastest-growing restaurant industry in the country, that managed to pay their workers good wages.

So Woong was living in California. He was a bartender. He decided, I want to go be a part of politics. He would say, I’m going to move to our nation’s capital and try bartending in Washington, DC. Do you know what the tip minimum wage is in our nation’s capital? $2.77. $2.77.

Woong was serving senators and congressmen. And he was serving people from the White House and earning $2.77 an hour and living on his tips. And when you live on your tips, as I said before, you cannot afford to take a day off, even when you’re feeling really sick.

So that happened to Woong. One day he felt a tickle in his throat. The next day, he was a little wobbly on his feet. By the third day, he could barely stand up and serve the guests. It went on for a couple of days, until one day he couldn’t get out of bed. And he called the restaurant and said, I can’t come in. No response, no offer of paid sick days, nothing. He couldn’t get out of bed.

And it went on for about two months. He couldn’t get out of bed, didn’t have health care, had no idea what had hit him, until finally he thought, I think I’m going to die. I better go see a doctor. And he thought, maybe there’s somebody in the Korean immigrant community who would take pity on me and tell me what’s wrong with me. So he found a doctor in Koreatown in Washington, DC, who gave him some free service and told him, you have H1N1.

Woong was out for two months, racked up about $10,000 in credit card debt, barely made it out alive, and went back to the restaurant. And of course, they had replaced him. And Woong says, you know, I never knew how many people I infected– my coworkers, the customers at the restaurant. Who knows? Who knows?

I never got my job back. I ended up in all this debt. And Woong says, but imagine. That was me. I’m a single guy coming from California. I think about all of the people in the back of the house or in the rest of the restaurant who have families.

What would have happened to them if I had infected them and they were out for a couple of months? What would have happened to their kids? When we don’t give the people who touch our food very basic decency and rights, like a livable wage or paid sick days or the opportunity to advance to a livable-wage job, we hurt ourselves. We hurt our health. And we hurt our economy.

Fortunately, I don’t want to be all depression, because actually, we are in the most exciting, thrilling moment our organization has ever encountered. We are about to win. So a couple of years ago, we started to go to the Hill in Congress Washington, DC, and take restaurant workers from all over the country and start to demand, enough is enough. $2.13– enough is enough. Nobody can live on this slave wage.

And about three or four years ago, Congresswoman Donna Edwards from Maryland introduced the first bill in US history to specifically address the needs of restaurant workers. It was called the WAGES Act. It was a big victory for us because it proposed raising the tip minimum wage to 70% of the regular, meaning repegging it to the regular minimum wage, allowing it to continue to rise, and finally overcoming the legacy of Herman Cain.

So that was a big victory for us when she introduced that bill. But we knew she was a junior congressperson. And so it was a bigger victory for us when we got democratic leadership in the House and the Senate to introduce the Comprehensive Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2012 last June, which finally proposed raising the minimum wage and raising the tip minimum wage. They took our proposal and Donna Edwards’s proposal to raise the tip minimum wage to 70% of the regular.

And you may have heard– we were all there on Capitol Hill on 2/13. We always do this annual day of action on 2/13 to highlight the tip minimum wage being $2.13. We were all there this year when President Obama mentioned in the State of the Union that we need to raise the minimum wage. And in the policy brief that he put out that day from the White House, he said, we have to raise the tip minimum wage as well. It was the first time a president in 22 years had mentioned that we need to raise the tip minimum wage.

And just a few weeks later, the Fair Minimum Wage Act was reintroduced into this Congress– the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013. And it’s been gaining momentum on the Hill, so much momentum that we think we can move it, but only through a movement, through a groundswell. In fact, the congressperson who introduced it was George Miller from California. And he said to us, to overcome the power and voice of the NRA– the other NRA– we are going to need to see a groundswell of public support, which is ludicrous.

By the way, this is an issue, according to a Gallup poll, that polls at 71% popularity Republican and Democrat alike. The masses of Americans are in favor of raising the minimum wage and the tip minimum wage. But Congress doesn’t actually listen to the masses of Americans. They listen to lobbyists, like the NRA. So we need to build a groundswell to tell them, stop listening to the NRA.

So we thought about it. Where had we seen a groundswell in our industry over the last 12 years? And there had been one. A guy named Eric Schlosser wrote a book called Fast Food Nation. And another guy named Michael Pollan wrote a book called Omnivore’s Dilemma. And a movie came out you might have seen called Food, Inc.

And suddenly, there was this groundswell of popular demand for locally sourced, organic cuisine– free-range chicken, organic strawberries, local produce. There was this increased demand for good, quality food. And it resulted in the restaurant industry actually doing something about it.

We saw restaurants across America change their menus, declare, we provide locally sourced. We provide organic menu items. We provide free-range chicken. Whether or not they did, they said they did. And it was a trend. And so we knew that if consumers speak up, ask for something, demand something, it happens. The industry responded.

So we realized we need our Michael Pollan moment. That’s what I like to call it. Michael Pollan wrote Omnivore’s Dilemma. We need our Michael Pollan moment. We need to build our consumer engagement campaign. The book is our call to action. It’s not just a book. The book is our way of saying to America, please, if you care about your health, if you care about the economy, if you care about good food, you have to think about the people who are touching it.

Maybe this is not your thing. Maybe you’re not interested. That’s OK. But the one thing I ask of you is to please not leave tonight thinking that the best thing you can do is tip better when you eat out or to think that you should just stop eating out because it’s too gross. Neither of those things is the best thing you can do. Because if we just continue to tip better and do nothing else, we continue to subsidize an industry that refuses to pay its own workers wages.

So don’t tip better. I mean, tip well, please. But don’t just tip better. Don’t just stop eating out. Eat out. Eat out wherever you want, whenever you want. At the worst offenders– eat out. Eat out. But at the end of your meal, please speak up.

We’re asking you at the end of your meal to go up to the manager and say, love the food. Love the service. But I would love to see you provide paid sick days. Or I would love, love, love to see you provide a livable wage to your workers. Because guess what? As a customer, that’s important to me.

So when my first daughter was born, she was just literally a few weeks old– or maybe a few months. I don’t remember. We took her to our first restaurant outing because, as I said, we as Americans celebrate these beautiful, special moments in restaurants. So we celebrated her first restaurant outing.

We went to a beautiful, organic, locally sourcing restaurant, brunch spot. We went there. We ate out. We were having a good time, taking pictures of her– the baby. But I happened to notice that all of the servers were white. And all of the bussers were Latina. And if you took a peek in the back of the house, literally– and this is true in so many restaurants. The further back you went, the darker the skin color got.

So I noticed this. And I noticed that the Latina bussers were working their tails off. And so at the end of the meal, my husband took the baby out. And I went up to the manager. I said, I love the food. I love the service. I want to keep coming here as a paying customer. But I got to tell you, your bussers are amazing. They’re amazing. What opportunities have they had to advance? Because I noticed none of them are servers.

And he said, oh, I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it. I don’t think they want to be servers. None of them have ever asked me to be a server. And we hear this a lot from employers. It just doesn’t cross their mind for whatever reason.

And so I said, I appreciate that. I just want you to know, as a paying customer, it’s really important to me to see diversity in the workplace. I like to see people who work hard move up in the ladder. And the other thing is, I’m a new mom. It’s really important to me that my new daughter can see people of her skin color in every position in the restaurant so that she thinks as she grows up she could be anything. She could do anything. That’s really important to me.

And he said, well, thank you very much. What was he going to do? He wasn’t going to spit at me. When I go around the country asking people to do this, people are so scared. But it’s amazing how much we’re willing to ask, what’s in this food? Is it vegetarian? I’m not going to eat it. Take it back. Is this locally sourced? Take it back. But we’re not willing to say at the end of our meal, I really would appreciate it if you would pay a living wage.

And it’s not that I imagine just from that one conversation that manager just changed his practices overnight. But I do think that if two dozen people said that same thing over a six-month period at that restaurant, you better believe that restaurant would do something about it. They’ve done something about it in so many other instances with locally sourced, with organic, with so many other things.

So we have power. We have a lot of power to speak up every time we eat. We have power with our forks. We have power with Congress. We have power. We’re not using it. But we need to because we do eat out more than anybody else on earth.

And as long as we’re eating out, we need to make sure that we are healthy, the people who take care of us are healthy. And believe it or not, the employers will do better as well. All of us will benefit when these workers are treated and paid better. In fact, it will be a better dining experience for all of us.


  • And that’s it for this edition of Making Contact. You’ve been listening to Saru Jayaraman, author of Behind the Kitchen Door. Special thanks to the Kansas City Public Library for use of their recording. Visit the library online at

Check out our website,, to get a podcast, download past shows, or make a difference by supporting our work. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Our handle is Making, underscore, Contact. I’m George Lavender. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.

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