Valentine’s Day is the busiest and highest grossing day of the year for restaurants. But if you’re heading out to a romantic dinner, you may want to take time to think about the man who brings your drinks, the woman who serves your meal, and the teenager who clears your table. All of them will likely be working hard to make your evening a success. In turn, you will be expected to reward them with a generous tip. Seems innocuous enough, but Saru Jayaraman says that system has unintended consequences for everyone involved.

Jayaraman is a graduate of Yale Law School and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. As co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United, she has spent the past decade fighting for better wages and working conditions for low-wage restaurant workers. ROC United has won more than $10 million in stolen tips, wages and discrimination payments. It has also spurred significant policy changes at several high-profile restaurants.

In this podcast, Jayaraman shares the challenges facing tipped workers today. Given its notoriously low wages, she says the restaurant industry suffers from the worst sexual harassment rates of any industry in the US. “You’re feeding your family entirely on tips,” she says of the typical server, whose median age is in the mid-30s. “You have to tolerate whatever a customer might do to you,” she tells us, “because the customer is always right.”

She adds that the restaurant business is also rife with racism. “Much of the industry is so severely segregated, with white workers up front and literally the skin color getting darker the further back into the restaurant you go,” she explains. Jayaraman does, however, express hope about the future. “Crisis breeds opportunity,” she says. “And that’s what we’re seeing right now in our industry and in our nation.”

To those heading out for a Valentine’s meal? “Tip well,” Jayaraman says. But she then advises consumers to work with organizations like ROC United to change the system. “Because if all we do is tip well, we continue to subsidize a multibillion dollar industry that expects us to pay its workers’ wages.”

Additional Resources:

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United’s website

2-13 Day of Action

The New York Times Article: An Outspoken Force to Give Food Workers a Seat at the Table

Jayaraman’s books: Behind The Kitchen Door, The New Urban Immigrant Workforce and Forked: A New Standard for American Dining

Jayaraman on Twitter

Featured Image: Saru Jayaraman