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Michigan congresswoman pushes ‘Restaurant Workers Bill of Rights’

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Michigan congresswoman pushes ‘Restaurant Workers Bill of Rights’

Sep 19, 2023 | 1:32 pm ET
By Samantha Dietel
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Michigan congresswoman pushes ‘Restaurant Workers Bill of Rights’
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Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., speaks at a press conference on her bill aimed at improving the lives of restaurant workers, on Sept. 19, 2023, outside the U.S. Capitol. (Samantha Dietel/States Newsroom)

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, re-introduced legislation Tuesday aimed at improving the lives of U.S. restaurant workers.

The “Restaurant Workers Bill of Rights” would raise wages and improve work conditions for restaurant staff. Tlaib, who also pushed this legislation last year, held a press conference Tuesday alongside U.S. House colleagues and restaurant workers who shared their stories.

The bill is backed by Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, a non-profit organization working to improve the lives and rights of restaurant employees. It is the largest and oldest restaurant worker-led organization in the country.
ROC United members carried signs and cheered in support of protected rights for restaurant workers at the press event outside the U.S. Capitol.

According to a press release, Tlaib’s bill lists the following rights for restaurant employees:

  • “A thriving wage,” which includes raising the tipped minimum wage.
  • “The right to healing and rest, including requiring paid family and medical leave.”
  • “The right to a safe and dignified work environment, including enforceable federal workplace protections.”
  • “The right to universal health care and bodily autonomy, including ensuring that all Americans have equal access to comprehensive, quality and affordable health care.”
  • “The right to democracy in their workplace, including protecting workers’ right to organize without fear of retaliation, and transparency around wages, tips and policies.”

The pandemic and afterward

There are over 12 million restaurant workers in the country, Tlaib said, who are an integral part of the economy. Many of these workers were disproportionately affected during the pandemic.

“Even as restaurant workers came back to work, it became clearer than ever, if anything at all, that workers living paycheck to paycheck needed to stop,” Tlaib said, “and that there (were) systematic issues that are impacting the lives of our restaurant workers every single day, the majority of whom are women, people of color and immigrants.”

U.S. Rep. Troy Carter, a Louisiana Democrat who joined Tlaib at the press event, said that restaurant workers “make the ultimate sacrifice of serving.”

“COVID showed us that when we were desperate to eat, and there were very few places to go, our restaurant operators, our restaurant workers, were there,” Carter said. “They stepped up.”

Many of these workers had to come to work even if they were not feeling well themselves, Carter said.

“Shouldn’t they be cared for?” Carter said. “Shouldn’t they be given an opportunity to get rest? Shouldn’t they be given the opportunity to earn a wage commensurate with the incredible work that they’re doing? Of course, the answer is yes.”

Michigan congresswoman pushes ‘Restaurant Workers Bill of Rights’
Mothering Justice and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United demonstrators on April 22, 2021 in Detroit. They called for a minimum wage increase and paid sick leave. | Ken Coleman

Tipped minimum wage

Tlaib’s bill, which likely won’t advance in the Republican-controlled House, would raise the tipped minimum wage. Under it, federal law would require restaurant workers to be paid the full minimum wage, with tips received on top of that wage.

Many states allow restaurant owners to pay their employees $2.13 per hour before tips. Congress has not raised this wage since 1991.

“$2.13 isn’t a living wage, it’s a starvation wage,” Tlaib said.

Carter told audience members to ask themselves if they would work in an industry for that long without a pay increase.

“It’s time that we give our restaurant workers the support and the backing they need so that they can lead fulfilling lives,” said U.S. Rep. Delia Ramirez, an Illinois Democrat supporting the bill.

Toxic work environments

The legislation also aims to improve the working environments of restaurant employees, who often report toxicity and sexual harassment in the workplace.

“So many, especially women, have come up to me and talked to me about those toxic work environments,” Tlaib said.

The bill outlines that restaurant workers should have access to housing and child care, as well as universal health care.

“You deserve to rest,” Tlaib said to the restaurant workers gathered behind her.

Lisa Baptiste, a ROC United member and New York City restaurant worker, shared her experiences as an immigrant worker from the Caribbean. She said because she was undocumented, her only option was to work at a restaurant when she first moved to the U.S.

She was never provided with paid sick or family leave benefits, Baptiste said.

“As a mother of three, one with special needs, finding someone who was capable, trustworthy and affordable to take care of my son was extremely difficult,” Baptiste said.

Child poverty rates highest in states that haven’t raised minimum wage

She said she often had to leave work early or miss work in order to take care of her son, whom she said many caretakers struggled with. She said she could not afford the experienced caregiver that her son needed.

“As a restaurant worker, life has been difficult,” Baptiste said. “It has been challenging in many, many ways. Having to pick and choose what bills to pay because the weekly income is unable to pay all.”

Baptiste said she wants restaurant worker wages to increase, as well as see workers receive the “healing and the rest that we deserve, including child support and paid sick and family leave.”

Carter said he and his colleagues will “fight to make sure that this (legislation) gets over the goalposts.”

“We will fight to make sure that this gets to the president’s desk,” he said.