Of course you're taking your mother out for brunch this Sunday.
In fact, Mother's Day is one of the highest grossing days in the restaurant industry. But what about the mothers who are serving your mother?
I know I never used to think about these women. As a New Yorker I ate out almost every meal, and celebrated not just Mother's Day but almost every occasion in a restaurant, never thinking once about the people touching my food. But after spending the last decade trying to improve wages and working conditions for restaurant workers through the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), and getting to know their stories, my dining experience has dramatically changed.
The minimum wage for tipped workers has been frozen at $2.13 per hour for the last 21 years. Our research at ROC shows that bussers across the country are generally paid the minimum, and the vast majority of them don't receive paid sick days or health insurance.
Last month, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa introduced the Rebuild America Act, which proposes increasing the overall minimum wage of $7.25 and increasing the subminimum wage for tipped workers to $5.
Even with tips, a restaurant server's median wage is around $8.67, below the poverty line for a family of three.
More than a quarter of the almost 6 million women who work in U.S. restaurants are moms, and one in 10 are single mothers.
Now that I am a mother I think about this even more.
A few months after my daughter was born in 2010, we took her on her first restaurant outing, right around Mother's Day. My husband Zach and I had decided to take a springtime trip to Santa Cruz, Calif., and we decided to stop at a "healthy foods" restaurant for Mother's Day brunch. We took a lot of pictures and laughed at the funny faces my infant daughter made.
As I sat there, I couldn't help noticing that all of the servers who greeted and served us were white and all of the bussers were Latina women. I watched these Latina women work their tails off throughout our meal. They moved chairs, collected an impossible number of dirty glasses in one hand and dirty plates in the other, ran about the restaurant putting bread on the tables and refilling water glasses, generally engaging in the most physical labor of anyone in the front of the restaurant.
I also knew these women probably struggled to put food on their own tables, because restaurant serving staff have three times the poverty rate and use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the American workforce. And with such low wages and no paid sick days, these women often can't afford to take a day off when they're sick.
In fact, two-thirds of the thousands of workers we've surveyed at ROC reported having cooked, prepared and served food while sick. As a mother, I don't ever want my daughter eating in any place where the people touching her food are sick and too poor to be able to take care of themselves.
After we ate and paid our bill, I decided to say something to the manager. I praised the hard work of the bussers and asked if they were ever given the opportunity to advance to a server position.
The manager was caught off guard, but he answered amicably. He said that none of the bussers had ever said they wanted to move up. I told him that as a customer it was important to me to eat in restaurants where the staff was provided with decent wages and benefits like paid sick days, and as a mother it was important to be for my daughter to grow up in a world in which everyone had the opportunity to advance. He said he appreciated my point of view and comments, and I left.
That experience gave me a lot of hope. It wasn't that I imagined that my comments alone would change the industry or even that restaurant. But over the last decade I've seen the power that consumers have to change practices.
So this Mother's Day, wherever you take your mom, ask the manager at the end of the meal about the hourly wage of servers and bussers in the restaurant before tips, and whether they provide paid sick days.
As a mother, please do this for the sake of the millions of moms who serve us daily, and for the health of all our children.
Saru Jayaraman is the Co-Director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) and an Assistant Professor of Public Law at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. A graduate of Yale Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, she is the author of Behind the Kitchen Door: What Every Diner Should Know about the People Who Feed Us, forthcoming from Cornell University Press. The piece was written in association with The Op-ed Project, which seeks to expand the range of opinion voices.
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