November 14, 2023

Author of “One Fair Wage: Ending Subminimum Pay in America”

Dana Bernardino

1Huddle Podcast Episode #119

On this episode of the Bring It In podcast, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder, Sam Caucci, sat down with Saru Jayaraman, author of One Fair Wage: Ending Subminimum Pay in America. Saru is an acclaimed restaurant activist that advocates for fair wages for workers. In this episode, Saru discusses the many issues faced with subminimum wages in America. She highlights the various groups of workers, including tipped workers, incarcerated workers, and workers with disabilities, who are allowed to be paid a subminimum wage.

Saru emphasizes how minimum wage is in place for a reason, no state should allow businesses to compensate their workers with wages less than minimum wage. She says this drives vulnerable  individuals to become increasingly vulnerable. Saru states that the future of work will be incredibly different than it is today, workers are starting to realize that they deserve more, they deserve better. 

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.


Below are some of the insights Saru shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “The nature of low wage work is going to change because workers during the pandemic reached their limit and realized that we actually can and should be demanding a lot more.”
  • “Tipped workers live in poverty at three times the rate of the rest of the workforce.”
  • “Tipped workers suffer from the worst sexual harassment of any industry because they’re forced to tolerate inappropriate customer behavior in order to feed their families in tips.”

Sam Caucci: So I guess to kick us off, what is One Fair Wage? Can you tell folks that maybe haven’t read the book or haven’t heard about your organization yet? Can you tell folks what is One Fair Wage

Saru Jayaraman: Absolutely. Well, One Fair Wage is both a concept, the idea of getting a full minimum wage with tips on top. And it’s also an organization, my organization. It’s an organization of 300,000 restaurant and service workers across the country and 2,500 restaurant owners who actually support raising wages and ending subminimum wages across the country.

Sam: What made you write the book? 

Saru: So I’ve been, I’m both an academic, I teach at UC Berkeley and lead One Fair Wage, the organization. And we’ve been researching these issues for 22 years. We know that there is a crisis right now in the United States of both income inequality and frankly a staffing crisis where millions of low wage workers have reached a point during the pandemic post pandemic of saying, I’m enough is enough. I’m done. I refuse to work for these wages. 

And so we’re in this incredible historic moment where for the first time since emancipation, 1.2 million workers, millions of workers are walking off the job and refusing to work for what we call the sub minimum wage for tipped workers that has been in place since emancipation and has forced a population, a huge workforce of mostly women, women of color, single mothers to have to tolerate all kinds of biases and harassment and, you know, insecurity to get their income in tips because they earn so little in wages. 

So that is, that is what’s going away right now. We’re seeing this incredible moment of workers refusing to work for these wages, restaurants and other employers being forced to raise wages to recruit staff because they can’t find staff any other way.

And as a result of all of that, policy moving in so many cities and states across the country right now to raise wages closer to covering the actual cost of living in the United States and ending sub minimum wages that never should have existed to begin with. 

Sam: So you sound very optimistic that we’re heading in the right direction?

Saru: Oh, very, very optimistic. We already won this in November of last year in our nation’s capital, Washington, D. C. In November of last year, Washington, D.C. joined seven states that have already ended the subminimum wage for tipped workers in just one week. Next week, Chicago, the city of Chicago is about to make a historic vote.

We already have the votes to end the subminimum wage for tipped workers with the leadership of Mayor Brandon Johnson. That’s going to be followed by, we already have the votes in Cook County, in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and Montgomery County, Maryland. This year, we have legislation moving in another 10 states early next year, and we’re on the ballot in battleground states, Arizona, Ohio, Michigan, and Massachusetts in November of 24, next year.

So we estimate that by end of next year four to five million workers are going to get a raise thanks to the incredible momentum we’re seeing right now a moment of worker power and leverage like honestly, we haven’t seen in generations 

Sam: It’s amazing work. Today I had at a meeting with some folks and I had shared your book and with them and one of the things they said to me out of the gate was like they just weren’t aware, you know, and they weren’t aware that, you know, you could be paid $2.13 an hour and that, like you say in the book, minimum is supposed to mean minimum. 

Saru: That’s right. That’s right.

Sam: What has been the biggest, like when you talk to folks and you travel and you speak and you do this a lot, like, what do people come to you with after reading One Fair Wage and say, this really surprised me?

Saru: I think exactly what you just said. Most people have no idea that so many different people in the United States can be even paid a subminimum wage. I mean, look, we talk about a sub minimum wage for tipped workers. We’re not talking about a tiny sliver of the population, a small, small, tiny population somewhere off in some remote place, we’re talking about the overwhelmingly largest private sector employer in the United States of America still allowed to pay a subminimum wage for tipped workers in 43 states.

And in four out of five states in the U.S. 40 states, it’s five dollars or less. So you’re talking about the largest and fastest growing industry in America being allowed to pay five dollars or less in four out of five states, the United States of America in 2023. I mean, that’s bad enough.

There are also, additionally, other workers who get a subminimum wage. Workers with disabilities, youth, incarcerated workers, gig workers. In total, you’re talking about maybe close to 20 million workers across the country who can be paid less legally than the minimum wage. And as you said, it is supposed to be a minimum.

Minimum means it can’t go under that. And yet, we allow so many workers to be paid less legally. And I think most people don’t even know that, number one. Number two, when they do know it, they’re outraged. They don’t think it should exist. They don’t want, they believe their tips are going to be on top of a wage, not instead of a wage, which is how it is now.

And overwhelmingly most Americans are supportive. It’s why whenever we put this on the ballot in mostly everywhere across the country We win because voters believe when you work you should be paid a livable wage by your employer That is such a basic part of the social contract of the United States that it’s hard to understand how employers have gotten away with this for so long.

Sam: Okay. I want you to coach me up on this one. Cause I’m sure you get this one a lot, but I’d love your point of view. I go to a lot of conferences and trade shows and events, restaurant, hospitality, and there’s a lot of folks listening that do the same. And they have heard here and there, you know, here or there from someone saying, this is going to  kill the restaurant industry. 

If we had to do this, we’re going to have to close, you know, we’re not going to hire as many workers. This is all the stuff that’s going to have to happen if we raise wages. How do you coach me to respond to that knowing everything I know from your work? What would you say? 

Saru: I would say there are seven states that have already done this for decades. California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Minnesota, Montana and Alaska have required a full minimum wage with tips on top for in some cases, 50 years, they have higher restaurant sales per capita, higher restaurant job growth rates, higher small business growth rates in those seven states than the 43 states with some minimum wages.

Higher tipping averages and one half the rate of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. Everything is better in those states because they actually pay people a full minimum wage with tips on top That allows them to do, guess what? Go and eat out with their families, which helps the restaurant industry. 

And everybody knows, I believe, who’s listening that the best tippers are actually restaurant workers. And so when they get paid more, they eat out more and they go tip better. And so there’s a virtuous cycle that exists in these states that unfortunately, the 43 states are not yet taking advantage of, but that’s about to change.

Sam: You say in the book that tipped workers live in poverty at three times the rate of the rest of the workforce. You talked about suffering from the worst sexual harassment of any industry because they’re forced to tolerate inappropriate customer behavior in order to feed their families in tips. 

My question to you, as we think about the future of work, and we think about creating a workplace where everybody can be connected, engaged, given the right opportunities, afforded equal respect, what do you hope for the future of work? 

Saru: I don’t just hope, but I now firmly believe that work is about to change in a big way. The nature of low wage work is going to have to change because none of these low wage sectors anymore have enough people willing to work in these poverty wages.

So I not only hope I firmly believe over the next We are going to see pretty massive wage increases across the board. We’re already seeing it in the market. It now needs to be reflected in policy, but we are already seeing massive wage increases, and we’re going to see more. I think the nature of low wage work is going to change, is changing because workers during the pandemic reach their limit and realize that we actually can and should be demanding a lot more. Both in terms of wages, but also in terms of, you know, benefits and the way we are treated and our ability to have a union and our ability to speak up and be heard and not be retaliated against.

You know, workers reached a place where they said, I demand so much more because I am worth so much more and they are getting it. They are winning it.

Sam: Saru, thanks for joining us. 

Saru: Thank you for having me.

Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Leadership, Workforce, One Fair Wage, Wage

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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