In a city with one of the most unaffordable rents and a higher poverty rate than any other metropolitan area in the U.S., raising Los Angeles’ minimum wage to $15.00 per hour by 2020 is an historic victory that will uplift almost one million Angelinos who are currently living in poverty.
The victory is especially meaningful to restaurant workers – the restaurant industry was ground zero for the debate, and business groups opposing the wage increase tried vehemently to exclude restaurant servers, claiming that they did not deserve the increase. The reality is that 70% of LA’s restaurant servers make less than $25,000 per year, and 82% of LA’s restaurants engage in wage theft (when employers steal wages by not paying the minimum wage, stealing tips, or forcing workers to work off the clock without pay).
This opposition was led by the California Restaurant Association (CRA), the local arm of the National Restaurant Association (NRA) who is largely responsible for keeping wages at $2.13 per hour for servers nationally. The CRA lobbied city leaders almost daily, and spoke at every public hearing in an attempt to exclude tipped workers from the wage increase and create a sub-minimum wage where servers would make less than everybody else and be forced to rely on tips.
In the end, the power of restaurant workers’ voices rose above the politics. Claudia Chi Ku, a single mother of four and a restaurant server, worked tirelessly to help win the increase. “I’ve struggled with not having enough money to pay my bills, to save, or to even buy something extra for my children. I just want to make a difference in this industry, which means not being scared.” Claudia is a worker leader in the LA chapter of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) and leads other workers to transform the restaurant industry.
Darden, parent company to brands like Olive Garden and Yard House, is a major player in the NRA. Betty Vargas, a prep cook at the Yard House LA Live, fought hard for the increase. “My daughter is a great student and it breaks my heart that I can’t afford to send her to college. I want to give her the education she deserves.”
ROC’s membership includes employers as well as workers, and Hassan Nicholas Del Campo, owner of Manifesto Café, also spoke in support of the minimum wage increase. “As a small business owner in one of the wealthiest cities in the U.S., I find it troubling that a majority of workers in the restaurant industry and others struggle to survive. It is in the best interest of my business and my employees that they receive a livable wage.”
The minimum wage increase to $15.00 per hour also includes provisions to combat wage theft which currently robs LA’s workers of over $26 million per week. LA will have its own office where workers can file claims and recover stolen wages.
The CRA was defeated in LA’s minimum wage fight, and ROC is working on a campaign called “One Fair Wage” to eliminate the sub-minimum wage in other states too. Hugo Aleman, a server in LA, is helping with that fight. “I’m lucky … I’ve been a tipped worker in CA, one of the states that doesn’t have a lower wage for tipped workers, for twenty-two years. It’s not perfect; we [won] a wage increase over here, but I can’t imagine what it’d be like to live in a state where being a server means your employer only has to pay you $2.13 per hour. That’s terrifying. Everyone deserves a fair wage, regardless of what state you live in. I’ve worked at several successful restaurants that pay all their employees at least the minimum wage; it can be done.”