There’s a good chance that at some point this week, you’re going to go out and enjoy a meal at a restaurant.
When you sit down at your table, a friendly server will wait on you. She will bring you drinks, make sure you know the specials, make subtle attempts to upsell you on appetizers or dessert, take your order, make sure your food arrives fresh and hot, whisk away your plates, refill your drinks and discretely slide your bill onto your table at the end of the meal. She will server your table, and perhaps a half dozen or more other tables as well.
While she is gliding between tables and kitchen, balancing trays of food or pitchers or carafes, she’ll be dodging other servers doing the same synchronized dance. She’ll also be dodging the guy at the bar who comments on her body every time she passes him. She’ll be dodging the clumsy, oafish come-ons of the guy showing off for his buddies at one of her other tables. She’ll be dodging the co-worker who “accidently” brushes against her as she passes him on her way to the cooler in the back. She’ll dodge the loud, lewd conversations in the back of the house.
She will do all this for an hourly rate of $2.13. It’s the same hourly rate her mother was paid for doing the same job in pretty much the same conditions 30 years ago.
It won’t stay that way much longer if Saru Jayaraman has her way.
Jayaraman, president of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, is advocating to raise the federal minimum wage for tipped workers (it’s been just $2.13 since 1991!) to the standard minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Eliminating the two-tiered system would greatly improve life for some of the nation’s lowest paid workers economically, it would give them more leverage to fight back against sexual harassment.
Jayaraman’s message has been amplified by the #metoo and #timesup movements, and she gained a whole new level of visibility when she was invited to attend the Golden Globes earlier this year with Hollywood luminary Amy Poehler.
Who is Jayaraman, and how why is she championing this cause? Her life is filled with lessons in moxie that she some light.
Moxie is often the product of adversity. Jayaraman immigrated to the United States from India when she was a child. Her father was a software engineer, and the family enjoyed a good life in California. That was until he lost his job when Jayaraman was a teen. It took him a while to find a new job, and the family fell on hard times.
The contrast was eye-opening for Jayaraman. The family lived in a largely Hispanic neighborhood, where many were employed in the restaurant industry. Hearing and seeing stories about low wages and difficult working environments made an impression on Jayaraman that endures to this day.
Her experiences have given her insight into the plight of women and minorities, who often occupy restaurant jobs that rarely offer an opportunity to raise their standard of living above poverty level.
Moxie means taking a stand for others, even if have the option of just looking out for yourself. Jayaraman was a gifted, hardworking student. She earned a spot at Harvard at the age of 16, but chose to stay close to home and attend UCLA instead. After earning her B.A. in International Development Studies and Political Science (she graduated summa cum laude in 1995) she moved on to Yale Law School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government. It’s pretty easy to imagine she might have been bound for a high-profile, prestigious job with a paycheck to match.
Instead, she made her way to New York, advocating for restaurant workers displaced by the World Trade Center terrorist attacks of 9/11. The effort evolved into broader advocacy work on behalf of all restaurant workers, most of whom struggle along in poverty.
Through what has become ROCU, Jayaraman has led the fight against the two-tiered minimum wage system and seen success in eight states so far. She’s also helped see workers get accrued sick days.
She’s given a voice to the voiceless, the real voices hidden behind the cheerful “May I take your order?” Her revealing 2013 book Behind the Kitchen Door: The People Who Make and Serve Your Food open a window into the sexism, racism, and worker abuse in the restaurant industry.
What would you ask Jayaraman if you had the chance?