Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and this is The Takeaway. The COVID-19 pandemic has been brutal on the hospitality industry. More than 110,000 restaurants and bars closed their doors in 2020 causing a loss of $240 billion. Now restaurants are facing a staffing crisis as many workers resist returning to low wages, no benefits, and rude or abusive customers. I spoke with Dr. Sekou Siby, the President and CEO of Restaurant Opportunities Center United, and Dana Barker, a restaurant worker in the Bronx about the needs of restaurant workers. Dr. Siby tells us how his organization ROC United is helping.
Dr. Sekou Siby: ROC United is a nonprofit organization that's fighting to improve wages and working conditions for restaurant workers. We do that through several ways, workplace justice campaign, policy fight, but also workforce development training.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dana, let me also just come to you just so I can establish where we are here. Tell me a little bit about the restaurant that you work in in the Bronx. No need to name it unless you have a great desire to do so.
Dana Barker: I work at two, actually. I work as a bartender for both, but I'm actually a bar consultant. I actually helped one of the bars establish their bar and help them set up the bar display and also created their bar menu.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay, great. I just wanted to establish where we are for a second. Now let me go back to you, Dr. Siby. We're hearing reports of a shortage of workers at restaurants and food establishments. One of the narratives that is emerging is this language of people just don't want to work. Is that what you're saying?
Dr. Sekou Siby: No, I think it is a completely false narrative. The real issue that the workers are facing is simply the so-called shortage is driven by the wage. It is also driven by poor working conditions. As of last month, the restaurant industry, according to the US Department of Labor, added 3,000 workers jobs. Why? Because now we seeing wage increase and we see employers attempting to give a better protection to workers. These are two key elements that were preventing workers from coming to work.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, is this something that we saw before the pandemic, or is all of this, Dr. Siby, being driven by the realities of the COVID shutdown?
Dr. Sekou Siby: No, ROC has been created since 2001, after 9/11. We've been fighting for wage increase and improving working conditions, so these are factors that's pushing restaurant workers out of the industry. The pandemic has only exacerbated a problem that existed before. Minimum wage is still at $7.25 cents and for tip workers is $2.13 cents, which is too low to allow people to work.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dr. Siby, that's exactly where I was going, that tip minimum, just as a reminder to folks that for so many people working in the restaurant business, as servers, as waiters, they're not even making federal minimum wage. They're making that tipped minimum. Again, just explain for us a bit more, then I'm going to come to you, Dana. Tell us what that tipped minimum really turns out being, what they're taking home at the end of, say, a Tuesday night.
Dr. Sekou Siby: Yes, it is very low. For example, now the lack of stability of the restaurant industry and the customers coming, no tourists are coming, means for servers, or tip earners, they don't know how much money they will be making day in and day out. In addition to the fact that their hourly rate is $2.13, if you add another layer, it is like restaurants are not employing enough runners. Servers are finding themselves doing cleaning job, which doesn't earn them tips. It is a compounding problem that's preventing them from coming to work, because if they do, they don't make enough to earn a decent living wage.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dana, let me come to you on this. That's the broad picture, help us focus in on your lived experience. The places where you're working, are you short-staffed?
Dana Barker: Yes. One of the restaurants actually is new restaurant. It opened a year ago and it has been hard for them to find stable staff members.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is that primarily about pay, is it about working conditions, what are you hearing from the other folks who you work with about why it is so difficult right now to hire?
Dana Barker: It's difficult to hire, not to say that people don't want to work, but it's more qualified workers. I feel as though that there are a number of places that would rather hire someone that isn't as qualified as someone else so that the pay can be a little bit lower. That also is something that has been a problem that I've also heard amongst my colleagues in the industry.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Remind us, because, on the one hand, anyone who has themselves worked as wait staff, or if you're paying attention when you're in a restaurant with a wait staff, then the question of qualification is pretty clear, like the things that make great wait staff. Help us to remember for folks who maybe aren't paying attention when they're in those circumstances. When you say qualified, what do you mean? What are the things that really set apart a great bartender or a great wait staff member?
Dana Barker: Well, I say qualified more so well-rounded, probably, would be a better way to describe it. Someone that knows how to serve and to also multitask versus someone who may just know how to do one particular thing, but then also not having someone that is so qualified that they have to do all the positions. It gives that establishment a balance of knowing at least when someone else new comes on that there's someone there that can also support, train, and also do those things, keeping the restaurant in motion in an organized fashion.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dr. Siby, help us to think a little bit about the kinds of choices that are facing restaurant workers. If it's been the pandemic, maybe the place where you were working was shut down and is beginning to reopen. Maybe you're talking about coming back for sub-minimum, tip minimum wage, are workers simply moving on to different restaurants? Are they moving to completely different industries? Where are folks going?
Dr. Sekou Siby: I think some are moving to completely different industries. Others are going into larger corporations that can provide better wages and working conditions. A large restaurant chain, for example, may have the financial backing to increase the waging, which is a good reason for them to pull workers from smaller restaurants. This is part of the reason why our fight has always been to level the playing field for everybody. The federal government needs to involve in increasing minimum wage, at least to $15, and suppressing the cheaper minimum wage.
Leveling the playing field for everybody will not create a competitive disadvantage for smaller restaurants who cannot increase the wages right now, simply because they don't have enough money, but larger restaurants are starting to understand. This is why we see now more and more people are being hired, but we needed to put legislation in place to increase that wage from now moving forward.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What happened to small restaurants, independently owned, maybe neighborhood restaurants who are already struggling in the context of the pandemic?
What happens if you raise the labor costs by increasing minimum wage?
Dr. Sekou Siby: I think it is a great if you can do that, though. This is what we're fighting for, but if only one restaurant does it and the other restaurants don't, then it puts them at a competitive disadvantage. This is part of the reason why the solution is a legislator solution. A larger restaurant with enough financial backing can afford that situation, but smaller restaurants may not be able to. This is why I really think it is important for us to have a policy in place, raise lower-wage act to increase minimum wage for everybody so it becomes the law of the land. It is imposed to everybody. That would work.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dana, do you like working in a restaurant? Is it something that you enjoy or are you hoping as quickly as possible to be in some other industry?
Dana Barker: I actually love working in the restaurant and hospitality overall. Giving a person a sense of satisfaction and comfort when you come in, it's almost like having someone come to your home. It's about the hospitality and catering to others and being genuine.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I have to say, I also love that when I asked if you actually enjoy working in a restaurant that you said yes. I feel like sometimes when we talk about how hard this work is, we presume that simply because the work is hard no one wants to do it. That everybody hates being there, that everybody would rather be doing some easier job. I also think it's important to acknowledge people actually like their jobs, but they'd like to have better working conditions to do their jobs in. Dana, I'm wondering if you're imagining maybe even the context of owning your own business, what makes a place a great place to work? When are you in a restaurant environment when you're like, "All right, this is what feels good, this is why I do this work"?
Dana Barker: The one thing I can honestly say is working with a company or a business that has a mission statement that bases its foundation and its core goals and values on integrity, respect, morals, things of that nature, and also knowing that having suitable living wages, protection, paid leave, insurance, and that can happen regards to illness especially during the pandemic. That's something that, as a business owner, I would and I am working towards providing that for when I do gain [unintelligible 00:10:43] staff members.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dana Barker, restaurant worker, small business owner, mixologist, thank you for being here and Dr. Sekou Siby, President and CEO of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. Thank you both.
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