I began my career in the restaurant industry while I was traveling overseas in the Middle East. I wanted to be adventurous and live aboard after I graduated college, and I was excited to gain useful skills. Upon my return home, I was eager to plant roots in a new kitchen; I hoped that, with hard work and patience, I could utilize my skills and pursue the American Dream.
Unfortunately, the American Dream is just that—a dream. When I returned to the States, I quickly realized that in many cases restaurant workers—who often earn the minimum wage or the tipped minimum wage—are expendable in the eyes of employers. After working for about a month in a restaurant in my hometown, I began noticing improper behavior from my employer. They failed to pay me on time and accused me of stealing without presenting any evidence to back up their accusations. When I didn’t receive my paychecks on time, I had to rely on customers’ tips.
Even so, I would come to work early and leave late – not for the money but to gain experience and knowledge. I tolerated petty arguments and misdirected anger. I had a clear vision and burning motivation for a career in the restaurant industry, but I was unhappy with my work. I felt disposable and without a voice. However, since I needed to pay rent and had responsibilities, I knew that quitting would be financially unwise.
I was lucky to learn about the D.C. Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), a worker center dedicated to improving working conditions and raising industry standards for all Washington, D.C. restaurant workers. Here I was, a young, broke, female, black, twenty-something-year-old from nowhere that mattered. But to organizations like ROC-D.C., I do matter. When I quit my job, and my employer withheld my final paycheck in retaliation, ROC-D.C. advised me about my options. They reassured me that I am the embodiment of the American dream and that I have a life that should not be measured by the size of my bank account.
ROC-D.C assisted me but I was left wondering – how can everyone become educated about their rights in the workplace? I am not alone in these experiences. Through ROC-D.C., restaurant workers come to realize that although we might be dealing with problems on a daily basis, we are also part of the solution. We have to fight for a living wage, against wage theft, and for protection so that we can stand up without fear of employer retaliation.
Restaurant workers are adults, mothers, realists and dreamers. We are living off tips, and working more than one job to make ends meet. In the words of Chuck Palahniuk (the author of Fight Club), “We’re [low-wage workers] everyone you depend on. We’re the people who do your laundry and cook your food and serve your dinner. We make your bed. We guard you while you’re asleep. We drive the ambulances. We direct your call. We are cooks and taxi drivers.” With our laundromat-washed uniforms, nicked fingertips, and loose dollar bills, we are paid as low as $2.13 an hour.
It is time to take a stand. The minimum wages in D.C. and across the country has been infuriatingly inadequate for way too long. In Washington, D.C., servers take home a median wage of just $9.23 an hour including tips. We often rely on food stamps and have a poverty rate that is twice as high as the poverty rate of the general workforce. This unacceptable reality spurred workers and advocates to launch a successful campaign to raise wages. Former D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray signed a “living wage” bill, which increased the minimum wage to $11.50 and indexed it to inflation.
Unfortunately, tipped workers will still receive an extremely low base salary of $2.77 an hour, meaning we have to continue to live off tips and the mercy of the customer.
If you are a restaurant worker in the Washington D.C. Metro area, I encourage you to get involved with ROC-D.C. We are currently running a ONE FAIR WAGE campaign to raise the minimum raise for all workers, including tipped workers. If you’re unhappy with your job, or think you’re being treat unfairly, then I encourage you to join a worker center. Get involved in a local movement that pushes for respect, fair wages, and benefits for all workers.