Logo for the Zocalo Public Square "What is a good job now" series.
Artwork by Ernesto Yerena for Zócalo Public Square

Zócalo Public Square, in partnership with The James Irvine Foundation, will be hosting a free public event Tuesday at The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture of the Riverside Art Museum.

The event will feature a panel discussion focusing on the future of tourism and hospitality work in the Inland Empire and throughout California with an emphasis on what can be done to incentivize businesses to increase pay and improve working conditions, things tourists can do to help promote a more hospitable labor market and how the tourism industry can better support local workers by creating opportunities for professional growth within their own communities.

“The restaurant industry has been one of the largest and fastest growing private sector employers in California and the United States for decades, but it’s been the absolute lowest paying employer in the United States for generations, actually dating back to emancipation of slavery when the wage structure in the restaurant industry was first created,” Saru Jayaraman, One Fair Wage president and a panelist, said. “At emancipation, the restaurant industry basically sought the ability to hire newly freed Black people, not pay them anything, basically continue accessing free Black labor, and force them to live on something new that had just come from Europe at the time called tipping.”

Jayaraman said because of that history wages have been “artificially suppressed for the last 150 years,” with organizations like the National Restaurant Association and the California Restaurant Association continuing to lobby lawmakers against mandating higher wages to this day. But since the start of the pandemic, she said demands for change in the industry have reached “a breaking point.”

Between decreased tips, due to lack of sales, and an increase in harassment reported by workers in the industry, Jayaraman said the nation was experiencing “the worst staffing crisis in the history of the restaurant and hospitality sector that we’ve ever seen.”

“These are just unlivable jobs, for the most part,” she said. “And so, there is no future for the industry unless these wages go up, there just is no future. They just will never be able to have the numbers of workers willing to work for these pre-pandemic wages ever again, and so it’s got to change.”

On the business side, panelist and hospitality expert Lesley Butler said there are many challenges facing the restaurant industry, including bringing back staff laid off at the start of the pandemic.

“It’s been very difficult, because some of those workers, especially the ones in the back of the house who were able to find other positions and perhaps make even more money in those new positions than they did in restaurants, just didn’t come back,” she said. 

And while Butler said she has seen restaurants have an easier time bringing in front of house staff, many are still operating at a lower capacity than they were before the pandemic.

“It’s still not uncommon to go to a casual dining restaurant, maybe even a chain, and there’d be a wait for a table even though guests looking into the dining room can see there’s open tables,” she said. “You’re waiting because they still haven’t been able to bring team members on board to even work in front of the house at the number that they would need to keep up with the volume of business.”

Beyond the challenge of labor, Butler said restaurants are also having to deal with the increased cost of goods.

“You and I see it in the grocery store,” she said. “So what you see in the grocery store is transferring to the goods that the operators have to pay for as well.”

In addition to the increased price of goods, she said delivery prices have also increased.

The final challenge Butler said facing the industry is what she called “the people part.”

“I think our guests are in a different place mentally than they were pre-pandemic, and in some cases, it’s a good place because I believe they’ve been quite generous with how they tip employees, because they are appreciative that they are back in it and are taking and providing an environment for them to enjoy a meal outside of their own,” she said. “However, I think that guest patience levels have decreased considerably, and so we see a lot of those outbursts that might happen through social media postings, which doesn’t show the good in any one.”

And while Jayaraman and Butler approach the hospitality industry with different perspectives and experiences, they both agree that consumers can help make the industry better by continuing to support restaurants and other such businesses that provide their employees with good working environments.

“Find that restaurant that’s exceeding your expectations in the quality of food and the delivery of service and support them,” Butler said. “Support the restaurants that are doing good things.”

She also recommended getting to know your servers and talking with managers when they come to your table to see what they’re doing to support their employees.

Jayaraman urged diners to visit the website for High Road Restaurants, a national network of restaurant owners that advocate for fair wages and increased equity, to see if any of their local spots are listed.

“But more importantly, even if there are no restaurants that you can find in your area, we want you to use that app on your phone, and at the end of your meal, say, ‘Hey, I love the food, love the service here, I’d love to see you get on this list of restaurants that are paying living wages,’” she said.

The panel will be moderated by freelance journalist and Zócalo Public Square Editor-at-large Elizabeth Aguilera and will include Jayaraman, Butler and restaurant worker Ralph Prado IV.

“This is the first event of a series of events around the question of what is a good job now in different parts of the state,” Joe Mathews, California Columnist and Democracy Editor for Zócalo Public Square, said. 

Mathews, who served as the conceptual lead for the program, said his interest in this topic spans a number of subjects. There’s the question of whether work has gotten materially better across the state for people working low-wage jobs over the past 20-30 years. There’s also a question of the impact technology, the pandemic, changes in demographics and other factors have had on the nature of low-wage work. And, finally, there’s the question of what actually makes a job a good job.

“So I think we’re at this point where so much has changed, policy has changed, reality has changed, the pandemic and all these other things have changed,” he said. “I think the question now is what are today’s jobs? And what makes one job better than the other? That seems like a fundamental question, but it’s actually a very hard question.”

Mathews said future panels in the “What is a good job now?” series will likely focus on industries such as healthcare, agriculture, logistics and the gig economy and will be held across the state.

“We’re trying to ask big fundamental questions,” he said. “And we’re going to different regions, we’ve just decided to start in Riverside.”

The “What is a good tourism job now?” panel will take place Tuesday, April 18, at 7 p.m. at The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture of the Riverside Art Museum, 3581 Mission Inn Ave., in Riverside and streaming online. Those interested can register for the event here.

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