In June, as uprisings over racism and police brutality roiled Philadelphia, the owners of the revered vegan restaurants Vedge and V Street sent a note to staff acknowledging the import of the moment — but quickly pivoting from human rights to animal rights.

“Our business was born out of compassion,” they wrote.

That chafed former staff, who said they’d received little communication since being abruptly laid off in March, in a pandemic, without even the paid sick leave owed under Philadelphia law. As they learned that the restaurant group had won as much as $450,000 in paycheck protection loans, they got organized. They collectively asked the owners to address working conditions, pay disparities, and workplace culture as they prepared to reopen.

“If you want to run a restaurant that’s supposedly socially conscious and pushing the industry forward, then you need to be actively leading conversations about improving conditions and seeking solutions for long-standing problems within the industry,” said Sam Mayer, 24, a former cook at V Street.

Instead, on July 17, the owners, Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby, told workers that V Street would close for good. They declined interview requests.

The situation highlights a new hazard for restaurant owners, long used to navigating conversations about humane and sustainable foods. Now, they’re struggling to address questions about their treatment of staff in an industry fraught with racial, gender, and class inequities. And now that returning to work poses a serious health risk — in an industry where only 14% of workers receive health insurance — many workers are no longer willing to accept the status quo.

Long-standing industry conditions, and the current moment of uprising and protest, have spurred a wave of organization among workers laid off from restaurants across the city. Some owners are pushing back. Some are shutting down. But others are rethinking their business models, moving toward higher wages funded by included service fees. The situation is testing the mettle of restaurateurs, but there’s hope it could lead to a more equitable, sustainable future for the industry.

“We’re seeing a lot more organizing. Some people in the industry are calling this moment the great awakening,” said Saru Jayaraman, a longtime advocate for workers’ rights who runs the national One Fair Wage campaign to raise tipped workers’ base pay to at least minimum wage. Hundreds of thousands of restaurant workers are basically on strike, unwilling to return to work for meager wages, she said. At the same time, “we’ve been overwhelmed by hundreds of restaurants being willing to move to one fair wage.”

That would be a radical shift for an industry that’s been marked by pay disparities, which left kitchen workers, many undocumented, toiling for long hours and low wages. Servers often fared better, but about 60% of them discovered that their low hourly base wage was too little to qualify for unemployment.

That was the situation before the pandemic left 332,000 Pennsylvania restaurant workers unemployed — about 80% of the workforce.

What happened then, for some, shattered the myth of the restaurant as one big hospitable family.

“When I first started with the company, it felt like they were going to take care of us. The money was good, everybody was happy,” said Michael Becker, 26, a server at Bud & Marilyn’s who, with colleagues, has been organizing to demand better treatment and more equitable pay. “Within the last six months it has changed a lot. And the more I hear from back-of-house workers, and how they’ve been treated, it’s really changed my opinion of the company I work for.”

Bud & Marilyn's is a throwback-style American restaurant at 13th and Locust streets.
Ryan Scott
Bud & Marilyn's is a throwback-style American restaurant at 13th and Locust streets.

Workers like Becker now reject the idea of a tipped minimum wage — $2.83 in Pennsylvania.

According to Jayaraman, that wage has been “an incredible source of inequality and sexual harassment.” She said that’s been true since it was first introduced as a way for employers to avoid paying newly freed Black people during Reconstruction. Today, 70% of tipped workers are women. And women and people of color are disproportionately confined to lower-paid jobs like dishwasher or cashier, or to lower-end establishments like diners. That, combined with everyday discrimination, means white waitstaff can earn double what Black workers make.

There’s a growing recognition of those injustices among the public, according to Jayaraman — part of a larger recognition of the “heroic” sacrifices of essential workers. She cites the overwhelming $22 million that people donated to a fund her organization set up to assist laid-off restaurant workers.

The Kensington restaurant-bar Martha recently switched over to higher base salaries with service included — and expanded health coverage for workers. One Fair Wage is also helping High Street Hospitality, which runs Fork, a.kitchen, and the recently displaced High Street on Market to look at how it could make the transition.

In Philadelphia, part of the drive to organize has percolated through Philly Workers for Dignity, a group that started up late last year and has been flooded with requests for assistance.

Tabitha Arnold, 24, a laid-off barista and volunteer organizer, said she got interested after participating in a wage-transparency spreadsheet and recognizing how depressingly low wages were across the board. “I think the tension has been mounting for a while,” she said. “Wages have been stagnating for a long time, and the restaurant industry is the fastest growing in Philadelphia, or it was. So something doesn’t add up.”

Now, for those taking in more money than ever through the $600-a-week pandemic unemployment, returning to work under previous conditions seemed unappealing. “People are seeing how much they’re making and how degrading and dangerous the situation is, and saying this isn’t fair.”

So far, the fledgling group has had mixed results.

It helped former staff at Milk & Honey, a West Philadelphia cafe and market, demand $15 per hour and safety protections before returning to work after two months of closure. While those conversations were ongoing in late May, workers began picketing — which the owners said made it impossible for them to operate the business.

Instead of coming to an agreement, the cafe ended up closing — for good, according to a representative, who declined to be named. The person said the owners were deluged with threats and harassment. After they closed, the building was vandalized, windows were broken and a fire was set — damage they say was done by those picketing, not Black Lives Matter protesters. Photos show the floor littered with broken glass and workers’ flyers.

Flyers from a group representing former workers at Milk and Honey in West Philadelphia lie near glass from a shattered window there.
Handout
Flyers from a group representing former workers at Milk and Honey in West Philadelphia lie near glass from a shattered window there.

Things went a different way at Dock Street Brewery, a West Philadelphia and Point Breeze brew pub that told laid-off workers they would have to reapply for their jobs as outdoor dining resumed. Workers responded with demand letters, protests, and flyers asking neighbors to boycott the restaurant.

Sasha Certo-Ware, operations manager there, said the company has recognized workers’ concerns — switching to a model in which staff are paid at least $15 an hour, paid for by service fees, and get contributions toward health insurance.

“It felt like there was a lot of misunderstanding on both sides about the finances and economics of running a restaurant. I think a lot of people believe that we are swimming in buckets of money, but at the end of the day it’s a very tight margin of business. We need to be disciplined as we try to figure out how to be successful, how to create jobs for our employees, and how to be affordable for the community.”

A poster calling on neighbors to boycott Dock Street Brewery remains in West Philadelphia, even though the company has changed its pay structure in response to worker demands.
Samantha Melamed / Staff
A poster calling on neighbors to boycott Dock Street Brewery remains in West Philadelphia, even though the company has changed its pay structure in response to worker demands.

These conflicts are arising as the industry faces momentous challenges, including repeated delays in the city’s plans to resume indoor dining.

Porta — the Center City restaurant and bar that was embroiled in controversy for announcing it was hiring rather than calling back former workers — is for now not hiring anyone. Dallas Hlatky, a spokesperson for Porta’s parent company, the Asbury Park, N.J.-based Smith Group, said plans were scuttled after the city pushed reopening back to at least Sept. 1.

And while restaurateurs are trying to be nimble, workers feel they’re being left behind, sometimes learning about their jobs only through social media.

That was the case at Safran Turney Hospitality, where some workers learned only after the fact that the Center City restaurant Jamonera had closed and been replaced with a seafood takeout pop-up.

Organizers said 20 to 30 current and former workers are set to protest, demanding payouts for accrued sick days they did not receive in March but, more broadly, a professionalization of their workforce. Becker said that includes shifting from tipped pay to One Fair Wage, contributions to health insurance, and the creation of a human resources department to address long-standing issues of discrimination and harassment. He said working conditions now are untenable — serving tables that he said are too crowded given the pandemic, and running food from a kitchen where workers who called out sick with COVID-19 found their jobs were not held for them.

Safran Turney Hospitality declined an interview request but said in a statement: “We are committed to ensuring the well-being, health, and safety of our staff and guests. We continue to adamantly follow state and city pandemic guidelines, as demonstrated through a recent inspection.”

While local workers push to unionize, even those already organized are fighting with their employers over issues like paid sick leave and how workers are called back.

Unite Here Local 274, which represents 230 cooks, servers, and bartenders at the airport, was unable to get employer OTG to pay laid-off workers for accrued time off in March. And those who have returned to work are now being told that time was zeroed out, said Jeeva Muhil, a bartender and the shop steward. OTG did not respond to interview requests.

Workers are now being called back according to seniority, Muhil said, instead of on a voluntary basis as the union suggested. “They called a lot of people and said you have 10 days to show up for work, or you’re voluntarily resigning,” she said — putting people with health conditions or child-care issues in a bind. “They’re using it as an excuse to fire people.”

In this file photo, Kendra Brooks, now a Philadelphia City Council member, marching at a Unite Here rally at the Philadelphia airport to raise awareness for the union's fight for more affordable healthcare.
Arielle Klagsbrun / File Photograph
In this file photo, Kendra Brooks, now a Philadelphia City Council member, marching at a Unite Here rally at the Philadelphia airport to raise awareness for the union's fight for more affordable healthcare.

Under current conditions, Brishen Rogers, a Temple University professor of labor and employment law and a former organizer, expects the movement will only gain momentum.

“If workers are seeing a lot of other workers stepping out and demanding better treatment, that can take off like wildfire,” he said.

Though some have shied away from organizing as they’re called back to work, collective action is protected under federal law — and those same protections apply to laid-off employees. As well, he said, workers at upscale restaurants are starting to recognize they hold more clout than they may have realized.

“These are jobs you can’t learn in a week,” he said. “Restaurant workers have some latent power because of that. Say workers struck at an upscale restaurant in Philly and shut it down. It’s not easy to staff back up.”