Sunday, February 24, 2013

Kisses to the crying cooks

Bill Moyers this week features a talk with Saru Jayaraman, co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. ROC's goal is to create a more stable fair wage and work environment for the country's 10 million restaurant workers.  The minimum wage for workers in "tipped" positions is $2.13 and hour and has been for over 20 years.

Now sure, some of them earn tips on top of those wages, but there are plenty of workers, particularly imagine your average server in an IHOP in Texas earning $2.13 an hour, graveyard shift, no tips.  The company’s supposed to make up the difference between $2.13 and $7.25 but time and time again that doesn’t happen.

They live on tips, and when slow night happens and you don’t earn anything or very little in tips you often can’t pay the rent. And I guarantee you in every restaurant in America there’s at least one person who’s on the verge of homelessness or being evicted or going through some kind of instability.

It’s an incredible irony that the people that who put food on our tables use food stamps at twice the rate of the rest of the U.S.workforce.  Meaning that the people who put food on our tables can’t afford to put food on their own family’s tables, and they don’t use food stamps because they want to, they use food stamps because their wages are so low and they face higher levels of what’s called food insecurity than other workers. So they can’t afford to eat!

The other key issue that we find that workers face is the lack of paid sick days and healthcare benefits; two-thirds of all workers report cooking, preparing, and serving food when they’re ill, with the flu or other sicknesses.  And with a wage as little as $2.13, so reliant on tips for their wages, these workers simply cannot afford to take a day off when sick, let alone risk losing their jobs. 

 The video segment with Jayaraman only lasts about 10 minutes.

ROC is active in hospitality-dependent New Orleans as well.  In a city where we hear constant talk from political and business leaders about the importance of hospitality and the so-called "cultural economy" it's good to see someone talk about making our leading industry sustain the people who provide it with the bulk of the labor necessary for it to operate.

Not that many servers don't do quite well, of course. But by nature, tipped workers live with a great deal of uncertainty depending on seasonal variances, and often have no or extremely poor access to health and other benefits.

A similar set of problems is faced by musicians (another key component of the "cultural economy") who because of the structure of their careers, often have to rely on charitable services , or at least maintain a "day job" to look after their basic needs.  Varg wrote about this at length last fall.
So, while the selling of our culture by corporate entities is indeed dirty and whorish. The main ingredient in the argument must always be the continued viability of those who contribute to it. And not just getting by like they always have but actually prospering, having health benefits, raising children, buying homes, getting resources, tools, supplies to better contribute and perhaps even inspire?

While locals do their best and certainly supplement a lot of incomes, corporate, tourist and civic dollars help tremendously. Musicians may bemoan corporate gigs, but they take them and sometimes, they even have a good time there. And most of the time the corporate gigs pay far more than the local establishments like, oh I don’t know, Balcony Music Club for example.

My wife was taught early by a local trumpet player that $50 makes “a gig.” You may show up and put a tip jar out and get a percentage of the bar but if you make under $50, it wasn’t “a gig.” Corporate gigs are always “a gig.” Now understand, we are talking about $50 fucking dollars for a night’s work by what we like to call the best musicians in the country.

Sometimes my wife comes home and shakes her head and says, “It wasn’t a gig.”
The Super Bowl New Orleans recently hosted was lauded as a grand success for the city's image and the future of its so-called cultural economy as a major money maker.  The kinds of reforms ROC is pushing for, such as a fairer wage, or better benefits, could ensure that the producers in this economy share more equitably in its benefits.  For some reason, though, Mayor Landrieu doesn't spend much time on such concerns during his many many speeches and initiatives on behalf of the hospitality industry.  But if we are going to talk about how important hospitality and entertainment jobs are for  New Orleans, we should be willing to talk about making sure those are jobs worth having.

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