The story of California’s minimum wage laws is often told as a story of progress. As of January 1, 2023, the state holds the third highest minimum wage in the country. All employees, including tipped workers whom most states exclude, make $15.50 per hour here. But such a narrative obscures the ways that low-wage workers are still being taken advantage of. Like how, for over a decade, California has required millions of its low-wage workers to pay for lobbying to suppress the wages of their fellow workers nationwide—without knowing it.
What organization convinced the most pro-worker state in the country to take money out of food service workers’ pockets to pay for anti-worker lobbying? And what would it take to lessen the grip of that lobbying, and make the minimum wage, which still falls significantly short of meeting the cost of living across much of the state, a true living wage?
In 2011, the California state legislature passed a law requiring all food service workers not only to take a food safety training course, but also to pay for this training using their own money. Lawmakers voted for the bill based on a public health justification. Food safety is indeed an important issue, but something more nefarious was at work. My colleagues at One Fair Wage, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of the workers the law targets, and I recently discovered that the National Restaurant Association (which we call the “other NRA”)—the restaurant industry’s largest lobbying group—spearheaded the legislation in order to dramatically increase its lobbying budget. In early 2023, the New York Times shared what we learned with the world: The lobbying group owned the food-handler training company called ServSafe, which held a near monopoly over this kind of training, and planned to fill their lobbying coffers from the $15 food handler courses. At least one-seventh of the association’s $25 million lobby budget since 2010 has come from California workers.
Chicago restaurant owners founded the National Restaurant Association in 1919, but its roots go back to 1865, when white restaurant owners invented the idea of using customers’ tips as a replacement for wages for newly freed Black workers. One such group, Chicago’s Black Pullman car porters, who handled luggage on luxury trains, began to organize in the early 20th century to win an actual wage. They eventually won their fight, but the NRA made sure that others did not follow suit. Instead, it successfully lobbied to ensure that agricultural and restaurant workers—both majority Black occupations—were excluded from the first federal minimum wage law, passed in the United States as part of the New Deal in 1938.
Time and again, the National Restaurant Association lobby—which today is led by mega-corporate chains, like Olive Garden, Denny’s, and IHOP—has convinced politicians across the spectrum and country to kill measures to increase the minimum wage or end the subminimum wage for tipped workers. In 1996, the NRA’s then-leader Herman Cain struck a deal with congressional Democrats to allow all other workers’ wages to increase as long as tipped workers’ wages stayed frozen at $2.13 an hour—where they still stand today. While seven states, including California, have rejected this system, restaurant workers in other states have been unsuccessful in their attempts to require restaurants to pay a full minimum wage with tips. The other NRA lobbied successfully against efforts in Maine; Michigan; Washington, D.C.; and especially at the federal level—thanks in no small part to money from California workers.
Meanwhile, California has become a model for the country, showing that restaurants can pay everyone a full, fair minimum wage with tips on top and still have a thriving restaurant industry. But most Californians making $15.50 per hour still cannot afford to live here. Per the MIT nationwide living wage calculator, in Alameda County, where I live, one adult working full time in a two-parent, two-child household would need to earn $33.50 an hour. In Los Angeles, it’s $30.15 an hour. In Orange County, it’s $32.50. By attacking minimum wage laws everywhere in the country for decades—using money taken deceptively from workers—the corporate restaurant lobby has forced all of us to settle for crumbs.
In February, state Senator Monique Limón introduced a bill that would require employers, not workers, to pay for the required food safety training, and compel the State Department of Public Health to publish a list of all available training programs, not just ServSafe. (My organization runs one of these, Just.Safe.Food.) In addition, several legislators across our state have pledged that they will not take campaign money from the National Restaurant Association, and that they will donate past funds received to worker justice organizations.
These efforts are admirable, and I’d like to see more of them. But we can’t stop there. California lawmakers must also focus on legislation to raise the minimum wage closer to what it actually costs for working families to live in the state. State Assemblymember Ash Kalra recently introduced such a bill, which his colleagues are currently considering. Such legislation should both raise the minimum wage closer to a living wage, and end all exemptions to the minimum wage, including the subminimum wage for incarcerated workers, who fight our wildfires for less than $1 per hour.
It is possible for the businesses of this state to pay their workers a “Living Wage for All”; already, restaurant owners are voluntarily raising wages amid a massive staffing crisis. California can create a level playing field for restaurant employees—and ensure every person who works in the state is paid enough to house and feed their families. This would truly be a story of progress.