Op-Ed on #RaiseTheWage / #OneFairWage
For too long, many of my fellow restaurant leaders and owners have relied on the legal right to exploit workers as a core part of our business model. Paying workers poverty wages was always immoral, but on the heels of a pandemic that left restaurant workers devastated, continuing to pay subminimum wages is unthinkable. The federal government recently bailed out restaurant owners, to the tune of over $26 billion in taxpayer spending, in addition to billions in PPP loans before that — and the State of NH has doled out further millions in grants. But if we’re going to save what little remains of the integrity of the restaurant industry, we need to bail out restaurant workers — by finally paying them a full, fair livable wage with tips on top.
I co-founded Boloco, a small chain of modern Mexican restaurants in New England, almost 25 years ago as a student in Hanover, NH for two reasons. First, because I like creative, delicious food — especially wrapped up in burritos — and couldn’t find what I had experienced in California here in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Second, because I expected I would make a lot of money. I loved our idea, and yes, I thought that following our passion would allow the spoils of success to follow for me and my partners. I had subconsciously bought into the often unspoken, but still prevalent idea that successful business in America happily produces a few big winners at the expense of millions of hard workers who can barely survive. It wasn’t until I had to step in and mop the floors and do the other dirty work that I realized people don’t do these hard jobs out of the goodness of their hearts. They should also be able to survive off their hard work, just like me.
Today, the idea of creating value not just for myself but especially for those doing the hard work day after day, of fostering a workplace where people feel appreciated and rewarded for their hard work — to me, that’s what makes a great business great.
So we pay every single person who works in our restaurants a starting base wage of $15 an hour — more than double the NH state and federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and astronomically higher than $2.13 an hour, the federal subminimum wage for tipped workers, which hasn’t increased in 30 years. Let’s be clear — I’m proud that we pay better than most of our peers in the industry. But $15 an hour still isn’t a lot of money. It’s hard to rent a decent apartment and feed yourself, let alone your children, on $15 an hour. But it’s downright impossible earning $2.13 an hour with wildly fluctuating tips and daily uncertainty as to what the future holds. And the idea of saying to anyone who works for me that their pay shouldn’t be determined by how much they worked that day, but whether customers were feeling generous that day or not — well, that never felt right
Even when the pandemic hit our business hard and there was pressure to do so, we refused to cut wages to keep things going. In fact, we increased wages — paying $15 an hour minimum plus a pandemic bonus during the height of the crisis. Because we were asking our employees to do more than ever, including enforcing public health guidelines while risking their own lives — they deserve more than ever to be rewarded for that risk.
So far it has worked. Just as moving to an $8 minimum wage way back in 2001 worked. I’m not going to say it’s been easy, but our business survived and now, as other restaurants are having trouble finding staff to hire, we’re almost fully staffed. Because while our industry does have a labor shortage, it is in large part exacerbated by a pitiful wage shortage. People are always happy to work for decent, livable wages.
The problem, of course, is that there are too many restaurant owners who are somehow fine with paying their employees pennies on the dollar so the owners can pocket as much profit as possible. These owners won’t do the right thing on their own. That’s why we have to end the subminimum wage and raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour as a baseline for everyone. When California did so statewide, it meant everyone took that leap together — which made it easier for owners and customers to adapt. It wasn’t easy in the beginning, and those who can’t adapt will fail. But today, looking back, even the corporate chains lobbying against wage laws acknowledge that business is better in One Fair Wage states.
Now, nationwide, the pandemic has created both the need and the opportunity for transforming our entire industry. Research shows that over half of restaurant workers nationwide are considering leaving the industry altogether, overwhelmingly because of low pay. I don’t blame them. This problem can’t be tackled one restaurant at a time. We need to take the giant leap together, to end the subminimum wage and raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour plus tips on top, because that’s how we send a message to all restaurant workers and fix the monstrous inequity and injustice in our industry once and for all. That’s why I’m supporting the New Hampshire Forum on Women and the Economy event on Thursday, July 8 at 11:00am at St. Anselm in Manchester — calling on Senators Hassan and Shaheen to support federal action.The government can keep giving billions of dollars to restaurant owners, but there are no restaurants without restaurant workers. And restaurant workers need the Raise The Wage Act — including One Fair Wage.