Restaurant workers in the US call for $15 an hour minimum wage

On May 15, 2014, fast food workers in Brazil, the United Kingdom, Japan and the U.S. went on strike to protest low wages in fast food restaurants and to demand the right to unionise without fear of retaliation. Photo from Flickr

Despite the promise by President Biden that the minimum wage will be gradually increased to $15 an hour by 2025, workers feel that it has to be done now.

Non-unionised casual workers in restaurants in the United States have expressed the need for the minimum wage to be raised to $15 (R215) an hour as they cannot afford basic needs. A series of protests and marches in different cities of the United States between November 2012 and November 2015 took place in support of $15 an hour. In May 2014, fast food workers in countries around the world, including Brazil, the United Kingdom, Japan and the United States went on strike demanding a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionise without fear of retaliation. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 (R104). The last time the minimum wage was raised was in 2009, while prices since 2010 have increased by 23.45% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In an interview with Elitsha, restaurant workers in the United States said that they are struggling to make ends meet with the low wages that they earn.

“No one can survive off a $7.25 salary. Not even a one-bedroom apartment. And as a college student I am saving money to afford school but it’s hard to save with such a low minimum wage,” said Ashley DiNobile, a college student working 25-30 hours a week on a salary of $9.65 (R130) an hour. DiNobile lives with her aunt and does not have any dependants, but the weekly $50 (R717) she pays for transport makes it that much harder for her to attain an education.

Ann Arbor, a city in the State of Michigan where a diverse collection of small businesses make their living off the city residents looking for something new and exciting to eat. Photo by Grace Carney

According to another restaurant worker, even a $15 an hour wage is not enough for especially breadwinners and those with dependants. Madeline Rousseau works roughly 15 hours a week for $12 (R172) an hour but she is concerned even for those of her coworkers who are earning more than she is: “One of my coworkers has worked at the restaurant for two years and has become a manager. She works at least 45 hours a week for $16 (R230) an hour. This will barely cover her costs of living and rent. It’s sad to know how hard she works for so little. This wage is way above the current minimum wage but is hardly a livable income.

“I think a combination of low wages, disrespectful customers, and stressful conditions causes low mood and tension. It’s so hard to work a job where all the employees want to quit, but they never do because they can’t afford it,” said Rousseau.

Working conditions

Another restaurant worker, Ethan Kalis, who works 30-40 hours a week for $10 (R143) an hour said that people quit working in the industry because of poor working conditions. “Working with people is not easy and there is a lot of turnover in the restaurant business, that being because of poor working conditions and having to deal with unruly customers and such.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average yearly quitting rate for non-agricultural workers has risen from 1.5 in 2011 to 2.3 in 2019. The amount of job openings has also risen from a yearly average of 2.5 in 2011 to 4.5 in 2019.

However, according to Sydney Walbridge, a female working roughly 6 hours a week for $7.45 (R106) an hour plus tips, conditions in the restaurant industry are not destined to be as bleak as one might think. “I am absolutely happy with my work environment. It’s very relaxed and comfortable.”

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Unionised vs non-unionised workers

According to Unite Here Local 25, the union of hotel, restaurant and casino workers in Washington D.C., workers who are union members get paid fairly more than those who are not and they enjoy legal, health, pension and retirement benefits. Local 25 is not the only union able to offer these benefits either as Unite Here Local 2, based in San Francisco, is yet another union that is able to secure health care, retirement, legal plans, and child and elder care.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that union members are also more likely to earn well above the minimum wage. For example, the median hourly wage of members of unions is $20.96 an hour as of 2019, and $22.20 as of 2020. However, for restaurant workers who are not members of a union, the median weekly earnings are $471 in 2018, and $456 in 2019, or $13.46 and $13.02 an hour respectively for a full-time work week of 35 hours.

Chain corporations vs small and medium sized restaurants

One reason the amount an employee in a union makes differs so greatly from the amount a typical non-union restaurant worker makes is because there are many businesses that simply cannot afford to pay their workers any more than they already do. This is a very common theme within small businesses, given the fact that they don’t have the resources and income that a widespread corporation might.

Speaking to Elitsha, Urime Cazmi, the co-owner of Mimi’s Diner, a quaint restaurant in Livingston County, Michigan, said that she currently pays her hosts around ten dollars an hour. If the minimum wage were to be raised to $15 an hour, however, she would be forced to up the prices of her food.

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“Right now, we charge around nine dollars for an omelette. But in order to pay the hosts, I would be forced to raise the price close to 15 dollars. The same goes for the other items on the menu, such as a cheeseburger, which costs around four dollars, and would cost around ten dollars after the fact,” she said. According to Cazmi, whose relatives own several restaurants similar to hers, many small businesses would be put in the same position as her if the minimum wage was to be raised. The owners would be forced to raise their prices, thus driving business away and jeopardising the business.

The protest for $15 an hour took place between 2012 and 2015 in 230 cities around the world. Photo from Flickr

Tip share is typical within most restaurants as some recognition of the help hosts and bussers provide to the servers [waiters] who handle the money. However, instead of using these tips as a bonus, many corporate franchises have grown accustomed to depending on tip share to pay hosts and bussers the minimum wage, thus taking even more from servers’ wages.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that quitting levels are high, along with the number of job openings. Many workers seem to agree. “Recently we’ve noticed a shortage of minimum wage workers. People are less willing to work in bad conditions for little pay,” said Rousseau.

Elitsha caught up with Jazmín Ruiz, a latinos female working for $3.67 an hour plus tips. She is unhappy with her work environment, and yet, she works 50 hours a week because it’s what she needs to do in order to support herself.

Benefits of raising the minimum wage

According to the Economic Policy Institute report, the economy can afford the $15 minimum wage and it would narrow the racial and gender pay gap in the United States of America. The institute states that the raise would be particularly significant for black and Hispanic workers. “Nearly one-third (31%) of African Americans and one-quarter (26%) of Latinos would get a raise if the federal minimum wage were increased to $15. Almost one in four (23%) of those who would benefit is a Black or Latina woman.”

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