We Can Solve California’s Service Worker Crisis

Ending Tipping Culture, Implementing a Livable Wage, and Training Future Leaders Can Sustain an Essential Industry

From left to right: Elizabeth Aguilera, Lesley Butler, Saru Jayaraman, and Ralph Prado IV.

Hundreds of thousands of visitors are expected to descend on Indio, California, this month for the 2023 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

The festival is a banner event for Riverside County, with people coming in droves to catch their favorite acts performing live in the desert.

But with all of this tourism money flowing into the local economy, service industry workers, who have helped Coachella become one of the biggest, most influential, and highest-grossing festivals in the world, are not making enough to get by.

At last night’s program, “What Is a Good Tourism Job Now?,” panelists discussed why in Riverside, and across California and the nation, tipped workers are still not earning enough to cover essential expenses like food, housing, or health care, which has caused many to leave the service industry in droves since the start of the pandemic.

The event was the inaugural program in “What Is a Good Job Now?,” a new series supported by The James Irvine Foundation, where over the next year Zócalo will explore what makes a good job for workers in low-wage sectors across California’s economy.

“We wanted to talk about tourism and service in Riverside County because the industry here has grown tremendously in the last couple of decades,” said Zócalo editor-at-large Elizabeth Aguilera, who served as the moderator for the discussion, which took place at the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture at the Riverside Art Museum.

Aguilera asked One Fair Wage president Saru Jayaraman to begin the conversation by explaining why the service economy runs on tips. “Where and how did this get set up?”

‘Getting paid a low wage and suffering anxiety from my job when I wasn’t even in a managerial position was spilling into my home life,’ Ralph Prado IV said. ‘That just wasn’t working.’

Tipping originated in feudal Europe, said Jayaraman, when aristocrats gave extra money to serfs and vassals on top of their wages. “It’s important to start there because wages are very low in this industry,” she said. “It’s been the lowest-paying employer in the United States dating all the way back to emancipation.” That was the point where tipping “mutated” here in the U.S., she said, “from being an extra or bonus … to being a replacement for wages because restaurants wanted a way to hire newly freed Black people—Black women, in particular—and not pay them anything at all.”

Illustration by Soobin Kim.

The National Restaurant Association (which Jayaraman wrote about for Zócalo earlier this week), a powerful lobby founded in 1919, has “fought against and artificially suppressed wages” for the past century to keep its workers living off tips, but it doesn’t have to be this way, Jayaraman said. She points to Europe, for instance, where the industry recognizes service workers as skilled professionals. Across the continent, EU countries have done away with tipping culture and raised the minimum wage to a livable amount.

Aguilera asked Ralph Prado IV, who has worked in the restaurant industry for the past decade, what makes service and tourism jobs so difficult—and also hard to leave. Prado spoke about dealing with low pay, stress, anxiety, and anger in past positions. Prior to having a child, he said, he was managing to scrape by, but now that he’s a father, the situation has changed for him.

“Getting paid a low wage and suffering anxiety from my job when I wasn’t even in a managerial position was spilling into my home life,” he said. “That just wasn’t working.” He left his last job because of this and has since taken a new position that has allowed him to have better quality time with his son. “Even then,” he said, “I am still considering, is this industry still good for me? Is this sustainable for the future? Do I have to keep working two jobs? Do I have to work a combination of jobs?”

These are among the questions that Lesley Butler, who has been a faculty member at the Collins College of Hospitality Management at Cal Poly Pomona since 1992, has been trying to address. “We train professionals, and we take it very seriously,” she said.

The experience that Prado had at his previous job, she said, was likely exacerbated because of a lack of leadership. “In our industry, there is a lack of experience, lack of leadership experience, and we saw that really in the pandemic because a lot of workers who really were not trained to be in leadership positions lacked training and caused toxic environments for their employees and guests,” she said.

Looking at the landscape, Butler does see reason for optimism. She pointed to big companies like McDonald’s and Chipotle making efforts to help employees advance in the field by offering tuition assistance and reimbursement.

And when it comes to pay, she pointed to AB 257, the landmark California legislation that will raise wages as high as $22 an hour for chains with 100 or more locations across the U.S. “That’s a significant change,” she said.

But can better pay solve California’s current worker shortage? Aguilera noted that restaurants in Riverside paying $20-$30 an hour are still having trouble hiring. “Do folks come back, or have they moved on?” she asked.

It can, said Jayaraman, but only if it’s a government-mandated guarantee of a living wage.

In a recent One Fair Wage worker survey 60% of respondents reported they were leaving the restaurant industry for a wide range of sectors. The universal tagline, she said, was, “Honestly, I will do anything other than this because I can’t afford to do it anymore.” Eighty percent reported they would return with the guarantee of a sustainable wage—but only one that was authorized by the state, so they were not dependent on the whims of individual restaurant owners, who might turn around and lower wages again down the line.

The discussion ended on a hopeful note from Prado. He spoke about how rewarding working with his teammates over the years has been—despite being in jobs that many look down upon. “I can’t imagine the kind of citizens we would have,” he said, “if we had people that were getting paid well doing this rewarding work, and [off the clock they] had time to do all sorts of great stuff.”


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