A cardboard sign was affixed to the front door of the Chipotle Mexican Grill. In big block letters, someone had written, with more passion than punctuation: “Sorry for the inconvenience but due to us being over worked understaffed and under appreciated we are protesting until conditions are changed.”
Regardless, the images quickly went viral, racking up nearly 20,000 retweets and finding their way into other tweets that went even wider. Two days later, Chipotle announced that it was raising employee pay to an average of $15 an hour, with “starting wages ranging from $11-$18 per hour,” though spokeswoman Erin Wolford said the wage increases were in the works before the protest signs made their way around the Internet. “We are seeing increased staffing needs to meet our current demand and we are building our teams for future growth,” Wolford emailed.
The Chipotle incident shines a light on two intersecting tensions that have come to a head during the worst pandemic in 100 years: The restaurant industry needs workers to ramp back up to 100 percent capacity, while hospitality workers, afforded a period to reflect on their careers while collecting unemployment, have discovered they have leverage over restaurants owners and fast-food chains, perhaps for the first time. Workers are taking their demands directly to employers, sometimes with the help of professional organizers, sometimes on their own. Many understand that the restaurant industry needs them more than they need the industry.
“We’re not only seeing walkouts in cities where we haven’t organized, we’re seeing workers demanding one fair wage and restaurants transitioning to one fair wage in places where we have nobody,” says Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage, which advocates for the elimination of the tipped minimum wage, which can be as low as $2.13 an hour.
“It’s insane. I’ve never seen anything like it,” she added.
Worker protests are popping up all over the country. This month, staffers resigned en masse at a Wendy’s in Wadesboro, N.C., demanding better pay and working conditions. (The employees affixed a sign to the drive-through intercom that read, “We ALL Quit!! Closed!!”) A coalition of workers at JuiceLand, a Texas chain of smoothie shops, went on strike at locations in several cities, while simultaneously negotiating with the company over its demands. Protesters gathered outside Live Casino, claiming Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen & Bar paid lower wages to Black workers at the casino restaurant in the Pittsburgh suburbs.
Fast-food employees and fine-dining workers alike are taking a stand. Cooks and cashiers in at least 15 cities went on strike a day before McDonald’s annual shareholders’ meeting on May 20. Supported by Service Employees International Union, the workers are demanding $15 an hour at all McDonald’s restaurants, a demand that came days after the chain promised to raise wages at company-owned stores, which represents just five percent of the nearly 14,000 McDonald’s restaurants in the United States.
In Washington, D.C., a group of employees at Del Mar, a fine-dining destination on the Wharf, emailed an anonymous letter to chef and owner Fabio Trabocchi, outlining their grievances with the management of the Spanish restaurant. The letter reportedly describes incidents of racial bias and insensitivity, a tip-pool system that lowered servers’ take-home pay during the pandemic, an incident of sexual harassment and the “toxic impact” of Stefania Sorrenti, director of restaurants for Fabio Trabocchi Restaurants. After declining to meet with management on May 21 — Trabocchi was in Florida for work and the South Beach Wine and Food Festival — at least seven employees resigned from Del Mar, forcing the restaurant to cancel individual (but not large-group) reservations that weekend.
Server Naderia Wynn said the stress of working at Del Mar had finally became too much. After months of being “singled out” by Sorrenti, given overloaded sections and being “nitpicked” about things such as the color of her hair tie, Wynn said she started having panic attacks. She was vomiting during her shifts.
On May 16, before the larger walkout of her colleagues, she quit, citing racial bias and toxic management. “I just thought, ‘It’s 2021 and I’m not standing for this,’” she told The Washington Post. “I’m way too qualified as a server to be treated the way I’ve been treated.”
Sorrenti could not be reached for comment. Trabocchi told The Post that he has reverted to a tipping system in which all servers keep their own gratuities, as he had previously told employees he would. He would not comment on Sorrenti, citing the privacy of personnel matters. As Del Mar reopens on a limited basis, he said, the restaurant group will be conducting additional training for managers as well as listening sessions for employees hosted by Trabocchi. What’s more, the company said it will supplement server incomes over the coming weeks until its dining rooms return to its pre-pandemic numbers.
“The concerns of our team members are a top priority, and we are committed to their fair and equitable treatment. We will not tolerate anything less,” Trabocchi wrote in a statement to The Post. “We have internal policies in place for team members to anonymously provide feedback and for our management team to address these concerns.”
Wynn had lined up a job at Bresca, a one-Michelin-star restaurant on 14th Street NW, even before she quit Del Mar. Several of her former colleagues have interviewed there, too. Wynn said she was proud of her role in helping to spark the protest. “It just takes one voice to get the dominoes falling, and it made a powerful statement: We’re not going to be abused restaurant workers,” Wynn said. “I’m glad it was my situation that helped start this. Hopefully it might inspire the entire city.”
The worker uprisings seem to be having an impact. JuiceLand executives in Texas, for example, have laid out an “action plan,” with proposals for improved working conditions and a $15-an-hour wage guarantee (although workers say the plan still falls short of their demands).
Some companies, large and small, have adopted wage increases without an apparent push by workers. In December, Kevin Johnson, the president and chief executive of Starbucks, said all of the company’s employees would earn at least $15 an hour within two to three years. Likewise, the Housepitality Family restaurant group, based in Midlothian Va., eliminated the tipped minimum wage for its servers, instead paying them between $23 and $25 an hour. The company added a 20 percent service charge on checks to help cover payroll. The tipped minimum wage in Virginia is $2.13 per hour.
“The business plan for restaurants is based on a 1950s model,” Housepitality owner Kevin Healy told the Chesterfield Observer. “I feel like we’re on the cutting edge and on the right side of this discussion.”
Restaurant groups and chains, of course, may just be reacting to market forces. Millions of workers were laid off or furloughed during the pandemic, and many are not returning. Jayaraman with One Fair Wage said that, based on the organization’s own research, the main reason restaurant workers are leaving the field is because of “low wages and tips,” and the thing that would make them stay is a “stable, livable wage.”
The restaurant industry as a whole has long lobbied against higher wages, and against the elimination of the tipped minimum wage, but Jayaraman points out a recent comment from Robert Verostek, the chief financial officer at Denny’s, who told investors that California’s law raising the minimum wage has been good for business. The comment led to a letter from Denny’s shareholders, who demanded the company end its relationship with the National Restaurant Association and its lobbying efforts against higher wages.
“Restaurant workers, if they’re paid more, they tend to eat out more than other people,” said Jayaraman.
These recent developments give Jayaraman hope that Congress will pass the Raise the Wage Act, which would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025. The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour has not changed since 2009.
Patricia Campos-Medina, executive director of the Worker Institute at Cornell University’s ILR School, said workers are feeling more empowered, both in the workplace and in the political arena. “Workers have the sense that this is a time to take a stand,” she said. “It’s a moment to demand more, not just from their employers, but from the government in terms of more protections and better wages.”
But Aaron Sojourner, a labor economist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, cautions that the restaurant industry is in a transitional period during the pandemic. It’s too early to tell whether the industry as a whole is shedding its historical relationship with workers. The balance of power in the restaurant labor market, he said, will rely on more traditional factors — fiscal policy, supply and demand, political lobbying, workers’ collective bargaining power.
As if to illustrate the struggles still ahead for workers, a group of protesters on Wednesday targeted Old Ebbitt Grill and Clyde’s of Gallery Place in Washington, D.C. They stood outside the restaurants, both owned by Clyde’s Restaurant Group, with signs that read, “Will work for fair wages!” and “Low wages stop America’s recovery.” One Fair Wage organizer Ryan O’Leary, a former server at the Hamilton, another Clyde’s property, said protesters singled out the company because it historically has had some of the highest-grossing restaurants in America. Clyde’s also opposed Initiative 77, the 2018 ballot measure that would have eventually ended the tipped minimum wage in Washington.
The rallies had no apparent effect on Clyde’s, however. “It was really, at the most, a dozen people,” said Molly Quigley, director of communications for Clyde’s. “We continue to support our employees. We’ve made lots of efforts to support them particularly this year. But we haven’t changed our stance on Initiative 77 or the tipped wage.”
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