We Support a Living Wage for Restaurant Workers

At the National Conference of State Legislatures summit in Denver, BFI teamed up with a national campaign fighting to end subminimum tipped wage.

August 15, 2022
By Sakeenah Shabazz, BFI Policy Associate

Participants and organizers of the Taste the High Road event at the NCSL Annual Legislative Summit in Denver, Colorado. Tasting the High Road was co-organized by One Fair Wage, the Berkeley Food Institute, Good Business Colorado, and State Innovation Exchange.

Restaurant and service workers play a crucial role in our food system, from preparing delicious and culturally relevant meals, to enabling owners to operate their businesses and formally participate in the economy. But these employees are severely underpaid. Federally, the minimum wage for tipped employees is a staggering $2.13, versus $7.25 for non-tipped workers. This means that even though the food service sector is one of the largest and fastest-growing sectors of the US economy, it’s also the lowest paid.

Earlier this month, BFI’s policy team traveled to Denver, Colorado, to participate in the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) Annual Legislative Summit. The trip was done in partnership with the UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center and One Fair Wage (OFW), a national coalition that has worked tirelessly to end all subminimum wages in the restaurant industry across the United States.

Paying restaurant and service workers at least the federal minimum wage is one way of bringing about fair and healthy jobs. This is crucial as the restaurant industry, and workers themselves, continue recovering economic losses from the Covid-19 pandemic. A report from OFW documented at least 1,600 restaurants across 41 states that had increased their wages to bring back their employees. Concerningly, OFW also found that experiences of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry, especially for women of color, skyrocketed during the pandemic. This data increasingly points to the issue of the subminimum tipped wage as a crucial stumbling block to successful restaurant reopenings — and all of the economic and cultural activity that entails.

At the NCSL summit, BFI and OFW’s key event took place at the Commons on Champa, also in partnership with the State Innovation Exchange (SiX) and Good Business Colorado. Appropriately titled Taste the High Road, the event captured an ethos of delicious dining and served as a rallying call to lawmakers to take an affirmative stance on paying restaurant workers at the least the minimum wage of their state. Two Denver restaurants that pay a fair wage, Sullivan Scrap Kitchen and Maria Empanada, were present at the event and provided both nourishment and insights on why they choose to offer a fair wage and other benefits to their employees.

“Our restaurant focuses on sustainability in the restaurant industry, obviously with food,” said Sullivan Scrap Kitchen chef and owner Terence Rogers, “but also with staffing to make sure our communities can grow in a sustainable way.”

Terence Rogers, chef and owner of Sullivan Scrap Kitchen, and Holly Adinoff, general manager of Sullivan Scrap Kitchen. Photos by Sakeenah Shabazz
Empanadas from Maria Empanadas.


Front and center at the event was Saru Jayaraman, director of the Food Labor Research Center, founder of One Fair Wage, and affiliated faculty of BFI. Her opening remarks about the urgency of this issue were situated in the historical reality that restaurant workers have always struggled to be paid fairly. Jayaraman also noted the national momentum to upend this status quo. Support for living wages for restaurant workers is growing, she said, and there is a chance across several state legislatures — including New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts — to raise wages for restaurant workers. OFW has also been busy working with advocates and policymakers to introduce legislation in many more states in 2023.

BFI Executive Director Nina F. Ichikawa with Delegate Mark Keam of Virginia, a supporter of One Fair Wage.

Nina F. Ichikawa, BFI’s executive director, also reminded attendees of the pivotal role that restaurant workers play in our food system. As good food advocates, food systems researchers, and consumers, we have a collective responsibility to advocate for restaurant workers by patronizing good food businesses, fostering collaborative partnerships, and providing research to media and policymakers to dispel persistent myths about this industry. Now especially, as the restaurant industry works to adapt to the disruptions caused by the pandemic, we have a duty to ensure its workers can go to work free of harassment and discrimination and, in the process, earn a livable, fair wage.

To read more about the subminimum wage and the impact of Covid-19 on restaurant workers, read BFI’s latest policy brief, co-produced with OFW and the UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center and provided to conference attendees at the NCSL summit.

Saru Jayaraman has also been active in the media as OFW campaigns across the country to end subminimum wage. Here’s a sample of her recent appearances: