While many restaurateurs are struggling to find staff, one such owner, Amanda Cohen, has managed to avoid this dilemma. Dirt Candy, a New York City vegetarian tasting eatery is paying “all staff a $25-an-hour starting wage.” Yet, as she told Business Insider, she still doesn’t “think we pay them enough.”
One impetus for this wage increase was the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the restaurant to close down and resulted in layoffs of her 30 staff members. When the doors to her restaurant remained shuttered, she vowed that upon reopening there would be an accompanying increase in wages. Cohen has stated, “[w]e put the focus on staff comes first and everything comes second…I can’t succeed without a staff.”
The New York Times reports on how, “[l]ow, inequitable or unpredictable wages, long hours and few benefits have long been accepted hallmarks of the American restaurant industry.” But, throughout the course of “the pandemic, restaurant staff have been demanding better pay and working conditions.”
Indeed, scores of workers have quit their jobs and many have even exited the industry. Department of Labor numbers show that employment in the hospitality sector has languished, and “[a]s of late July, restaurants were nearly one million jobs, or 8 percent, below prepandemic levels, and 75 percent of restaurant operators report that recruiting and retaining employees was their top challenge, the highest level recorded in two decades, according to the National Restaurant Association.”
The President of One Fair Wage, a national organization committed to both raising wages and improving working conditions for workers in the service sector, Saru Jayaraman, believes that for true change to occur, laws must be passed.
“It has to be universal, permanent change that makes a worker feel like it’s worth coming back to this industry,” she said.
The Biden Administration is urging Congress to pass the Raise the Wage Act, which would end the practice of tipped minimum wage. This bill does not seem likely to be signed into law this session given its lack of support from high-up Democratic lawmakers, and it also faces vociferous opposition from the National Restaurant Association.
Even without help from the law, change is still occurring in the industry. One Fair Wage released their September 2021 report, “Raising Wages to Reopen: Restaurants Nationwide Raising Wages to Save Their Businesses” and it documents how “over 1,600 restaurants have raised wages to pay the full minimum wage with tips on top, with an average wage of about $13.50—across 41 states in which the vast majority of restaurants were paying a subminimum wage of $5 or less earlier this year.”