It’s Time for Chicago to Pay Restaurant Workers What They’re Worth

by Josh Kulp and Christine Cikowski Oct 24, 2019

On Wednesday, during her budget address, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she wants the minimum wage to increase to $15 per hour by 2021. Since last month, Chicago’s City Council has been considering raising the minimum wage “the right way” for the city’s tipped workers, which includes restaurant servers and bartenders. Alderman (4th) Sophia King introduced the legislation, hoping the council can vote in favor of a higher minimum wage before the end of October.

The issue is polarizing. On one hand, lobbyists from the Illinois Restaurant Association criticize the proposed ordinance, saying restaurants can’t afford to eliminate what they call the “tip credit” (the practice of using a worker’s tips to fill the gap between the lower $6.40 hourly wage to the standard city minimum wage of $13 per hour). On the other hand, union reps for Restaurants Opportunities Center (ROC) call the $6.40 per hour wage a “sub-minimum wage,” arguing that the less workers have to depend on tips, the better off they’ll be.

Josh Kulp and Christine Cikowski, the co-owners and chefs at Avondale’s Honey Butter Fried Chicken, one of Chicago’s essential restaurants, have long been advocates for workers’s rights. Thursday morning, they even provided a breakfast spread for picketing Chicago Public School teachers. In 2017, they joined the Sanctuary Restaurant movement, devoted to creating an inclusive and equitable hospitality industry. Their words on the current minimum wage ordinance, edited for clarity, are below.

When we opened Honey Butter Fried Chicken in 2013, we set out to not only make delicious food, source responsibly, and provide great service. We wanted to add value to our community. We know that offering fair wages and providing basic benefits — including paid parental leave, vacation, sick time; health insurance for employees and dependents; and being transparent with open book finances — has led to a healthier company and a more professional workplace. We believe this emphasis has benefited our business in measurable ways. Our employee retention is at 42 percent in 2018, substantially different from the 75-percent industry turnover average across the country, according to National Restaurant Association numbers.

The benefits of higher wages go beyond our storefront — they stimulate the local economy. By raising wages, we’re providing our workers with more purchasing power. With necessities like rent and bills better taken care of, people can spend extra cash rewarding themselves for their hard work. We can look to cities such as Oakland, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, and our own city, Chicago, for evidence that increasing the minimum wage can be successful for workers and businesses. These cities have continued private sector growth, all while increasing pay for low-income workers in recent years, according to a study from the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. The study focused on food workers from those five cities and Washington, D.C. and found higher wages led to stronger private sector growth.

At Honey Butter Fried Chicken our menu prices include not only the high-quality ingredients we use, but also great service — both for our customers and for our employees. In 2015, we began paying all of our employees a full, livable wage and eliminated the use of the sub-minimum wage or tip credit. This means that all of the hospitality we provide is included in the price of our customers’s meals. There’s no need to tip any extra to receive great food and amazing service. To be clear, the ordinance proposal before the City Council does not prohibit tips, and restaurants are welcome to continue accepting tips if they choose. Rather, the ordinance eliminates the sub-minimum wage or tip credit.

We know the tip credit is in truth a mechanism to pay our hard-working colleagues a sub-minimum wage where the customer is expected to provide a wage subsidy to the employer. This subsidy is unfortunately often based on arbitrary and potentially discriminatory factors. Too often, tipped workers are subject to sexual harassment and racial discrimination in order to earn their income. By paying fair wages without relying on tips, we compensate the entire team — both back of the house and front of the house — more equitably, competitively, and professionally, while providing paths for professional advancement.

As an industry, we have for too long undervalued the food that we serve by allowing for a two-tier wage system. Restaurants are not required to directly pay certain workers a full wage. We play a game where we expect customers to make up the discrepancy through tipping. For a lucky few, mostly those who work in high end restaurants, being a front of the house worker has led to even further exacerbation of wage discrepancies within restaurants and continues to perpetuate divides.

The truth is that most tipped restaurant workers are not working in restaurants where check averages top off in the hundreds of dollars. They are working in diners, low-cost chain restaurants, and are behind the counters at many quick service restaurants. Nearly 70 percent of tipped workers are women, and according to the Economic Policy Institute, tipped workers have twice the likelihood of living in poverty when compared to non-tipped workers, according to a report by the Economic Report Institute.

We recognize that making this change may not be an easy sell for every restaurant, but this is not only an economic issue, it’s a social justice issue. This is an opportunity for our industry to take steps to begin the hard work of addressing racial, class, and gender inequity. We have a responsibility as business owners to provide equitable employment to all of our employees. As members of the restaurant community, we need to stand up with a unified voice in solidarity with our colleagues across the city — whether they work in a diner, a quick-service restaurant, or a Michelin-starred restaurant — to provide them with fair wages and a dignified profession.

We are calling on the Chicago City Council to pass and sign $15 an hour, with full elimination of the sub-minimum wage, into law.