If you’ve ever tried to make a living waiting tables, you know how hard it can be.
Low wages and paltry tips are a given. Paid insurance and sick leave? Not likely.
Peabody award-winning documentary film director Abby Ginzberg is intimately acquainted with the struggles restaurant workers face. She spent three years documenting the issues, and in her new film, “Waging Change,” she lays them out in detail.
The eye-opening documentary, which premiered in New York in November at the DOC NYC film festival, makes its Bay Area broadcast debut Feb. 19 on KQED.
Filmed over a three-year period, “Waging Change” follows activists in the One Fair Wage movement, and focuses on one of the biggest issues facing American restaurant workers: the federal “tipped minimum wage” of $2.13. It also explores the #MeToo movement’s efforts to address sexual harassment in restaurants across the country, and includes interviews with workers, experts, and advocates Saru Jayaraman, Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Ginzberg, whose earlier films include 2017’s “And Then They Came for Us,” linking World War II Japanese internment with the current Muslim travel ban, started her career as a lawyer, litigating cases on issues of discrimination, diversity, race and sexism. In a call from her Berkeley home, she said that “Waging Change” is informed by that work. But she admits she was taken aback by what she learned from restaurant employees.
“I’d never heard of the tipped minimum wage,” she said. “I was shocked.”
Although it’s a federal law, she notes, not every state adheres to it (California, and six other Western states, do not.)
It hasn’t been good for workers in the 17 states that do. The law creates a situation in which more of an employee’s hourly wage derives from tips, rather than from wages. In addition to servers, it affects bartenders, nail salon workers and others.
“The tipped minimum wage is much lower than that state’s regular minimum wage, and it is legal,” Ginzberg explains. “In those states, the regular minimum wage is $7.25. It means that $5.12 of every tip you get goes to underwrite your making the bare minimum of the minimum wage – a rule that permits employers not to pay a full wage, and forces employees to live off their tips.”
Ginzberg calls the situation “both astounding and outrageous,” and says that most restaurant patrons are completely unaware of the rule.
“For the average restaurant-goer, we assume that if we put a 15- or 20 percent tip on a bill, that that money is extra. We don’t think of it as paying the worker’s wage. I thought, if I don’t know this, how many millions of other people don’t? And that’s why I decided to tell this story.”
The issues aren’t simply financial. Workers who labor under the tipped minimum wage experience higher rates of sexual harassment, notes Ginzberg. “I wanted to demonstrate the double bind women workers are in, and what they have to put up with if their employers are not paying them a fair wage.”
The film posits that the restaurant industry is the largest in terms of wage theft – which means, says Ginzberg, “if you don’t get paid the difference between the tipped minimum wage and the regular minimum wage, you are supposed to complain to management, and they are supposed to make up the difference. That happens once in a million.”
Workers who pursue the claim, she adds, run the risk of harassment, reduced hours, or losing their jobs altogether.
Ginzberg credits advocates such as Ocasio-Cortez, an outspoken champion of workers’ rights, and Jayaraman, co-founder of One Fair Wage and author of “Behind the Kitchen Door.”
“Saru’s the major strategist around the issue of how to deal with tipped minimum wage,” she said. “She’s encouraged restaurant owners to do the right thing for their employees. It’s possible to do that even in a state that’s not mandating it, and her organizing has really helped with that.”
There’s currently no federal legislation that abolishes the Tipped Minimum Wage; the House of Representatives voted to end the practice in 2019, but the bill never got to the Senate floor. The current Raise the Wage Act was introduced into the house last month, but has not been approved by the Senate.
But Ginzberg, who recently wrapped her latest film, “Truth to Power: Barbara Lee Speaks for Me,”about Bay Area Rep. Barbara Lee, says she’s cautiously optimistic. She expects President Joe Biden to be more woke than his predecessor on this issue, and to workers’ concerns in general.
“I believe he understands,” she said. “He’s said that people shouldn’t be standing in food lines to feed their families. So I do believe we’ll continue to see change at the state and local level; understanding that this is a national policy that needs to be changed is what will help us get there.”
She also thinks the COVID-19 shutdowns have created time for a pause. “In most states, people who were making $2.13 an hour didn’t even qualify for unemployment. COVID gives us a chance to start over. Post-pandemic, we need to think about how we pay people fairly for the work they do.”
IF YOU WATCH
Starring: Saru Jayaraman, Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Directed by: Abby Ginzberg
Running time: 1 hour, 5 minutes
Note: “Waging Change” airs at 8 p.m. Feb. 19 on KQED.