Armed with a curiosity about why restaurants workers receive low pay in the United States, Woodland School student Milo Barnes dedicated his yearlong capstone project to exploring this and figuring out how he could help.
Milo, 13, of Redwood City, said he had heard how people in the restaurant industry had to juggle several part-time jobs to make ends meet given the "lack of substantial increase in the minimum wage," he wrote in his project summary.
The project is part of a program in which eighth graders at the Portola Valley school spend the school year researching a topic of local and global significance, and present their findings to the Woodland community. Other topics covered by students this school year included animal poaching, gender equity in pay for female athletes and food insecurity, according to the school's website.
Milo said one of the most startling things he uncovered during his research was the origins of tipping service workers. During the 1850s and '60s, wealthy Americans "discovered the tradition (tipping), which originated in medieval times as a master-serf custom," wishing to seem aristocratic,
according to a 2019 Time Magazine article Milo cites.
Many traditionally low-wage industries took this opportunity to legally pay their workers less than a livable wage to increase the business owner's profits, Milo wrote.
"This practice was even used as legalized racial oppression of the Reconstruction Period, as 'many former slaves would only be able to work in low class jobs (often tipped) because of their lack of experience and education,'" he said. Freed slaves relied on tips in place of wages, which caused them to struggle to support themselves since people would tip them less because of prejudices, he wrote.
Milo found, via the nonprofit [www.epi.org/publication/minimum-wage-testimony-feb-2019 Economic Policy Institute, that if the minimum wage grew with productivity, it would have reached over $20 per hour in 2019. The federal tipped minimum wage was $2.13 per hour in 2019, according to the nonprofit. This amount is maintained because restaurants expect that the remainder of wages will be made by tips, "which is oftentimes not true," Milo wrote.
RENTCafé rent affordability calculator tool shows that the average San Francisco restaurant worker needs to put 40% of their wages toward rent.
Milo explored ways for restaurant workers to make more livable wages.
One movement he highlighted is the cooperative business model. Instead of the traditional business model in which profits go to an owner or investors, a cooperative is owned by its workers, and profits are distributed equally between them.
A Slice of New York in Sunnyvale, for example, has a board that's elected annually by its members, has its own constitution (an operating agreement) and makes decisions on budget, governance and strategy.
"This is their profits, too," co-owner Kirk Vartan told The Alamanc's sister publication, The Six Fifty. "This is where people are taking time to think about the long term and that's where I see people really understanding the weight of ownership. It's not about today. It's not about what you get. It's how do you sustain and what does it take to sustain?"
Milo also researched mandatory service charges, sometimes called a quality of life tax. A former restaurant owner told the Washington Post in 2019 that a mandatory 18% service charge improved the "food, the service, the pay, the customer satisfaction" at his business.
Increasing minimum wage and abolishing tipped wages could decrease poverty among restaurant workers, Milo found. Instead of employers being forced to lay off workers to save money, experts have said that an increase in the minimum wage is predicted to increase employment, according to the Economic Policy Institute report.
A restaurant owner Milo interviewed said she combines her employees' tips and distributes them equally among them, which helps establish more pay equity. This started during the COVID-19 pandemic when her workers had to become more flexible to accommodate online orders, often having to work many different jobs within the restaurant. Her workers received less money in tips because fewer people were eating out. Pooling tips could help increase pay for chefs who, unlike waiters, don't normally interact with customers, the owner said.
Milo posted flyers in Redwood City and Ladera, which directed people to a website with information on how others can help restaurant workers make living wages. He includes links to local organizations that advocate for restaurant workers, including the Cal Restaurant Association and the Restaurant Relief Fund.
"I want to share with other people what they can do — the little things (to help restaurant workers)," he said.
For more on the project, go here.