restaurant opportunities center

Despite the continued growth of the restaurant industry both locally and nationally, the state minimum wage for tipped workers has been $2.13 an hour for more than two decades. This is just one of the fights that the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Pittsburgh (ROC) has taken on to improve working conditions for thousands of local restaurant employees.

ROC Pittsburgh is a branch of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a workers center founded in New York in 2008 that now has offices in 32 cities nationwide.

Pittsburgh’s ROC was founded in 2013. Some of their initial work targeted Darden Restaurants, a national restaurant operator that includes Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and other casual dining chains including Capital Grille, which ROC protested in 2013 for requiring staff to work Thanksgiving without holiday pay.

“The thinking is if we hold the biggest accountable and they clean up their act, the rest of industry will follow suit,” says Jordan Romanus, lead organizer with ROC Pittsburgh.

In 2015 ROC Pittsburgh spent most of their time pushing for Pittsburgh’s Paid Sick Days Act, which passed 7-1 in City Council and required restaurants with 15 or more employees to provide workers with one hour of paid sick leave for every 35 hours worked. (The law was struck down later that year and is currently being litigated in Commonwealth Court.)

While the courts decide the legality of the Paid Sick Days Act, ROC has approached local businesses to commit to implementing a sick day policy voluntary. Garfield’s Mixtape and Bantha Tea Bar as well as Allentown’s Black Forge Coffee House have joined so far.

Besides seeking to raise the tipped minimum wage through the national “One Fair Wage” campaign, ROC Pittsburgh is spending 2017 focused on legislation that deals with wage theft. In January, Councilman Dan Gilman introduced six pieces of legislation under the title of “City for All.” One of the bills prohibits restaurants convicted of wage theft from receiving City contracts for three years.

Romanus says that wage theft can take many forms. For example, tipped workers can only spend 20% of their time doing untipped side work, such as cleaning, but some employers ask their staff to go over that amount without paying them a higher rate.

“We shouldn’t be creating this climate where a certain demographic of our population lives in absolute poverty,” says Romanus. “Whether it’s a white person or an immigrant or whoever, it’s unacceptable to pay someone a poverty wage.”

In addition to industry-wide campaigns, ROC Pittsburgh advocates for workers at individual restaurants on a case-by-case basis to acquire back wages or address other shortcomings. In December the group helped employees at Teppanyaki-Kyoto receive $20,000 in back pay for misallocated tips and workplace grievances.

ROC Pittsburgh also helps to publicize businesses that engage in fair practices for workers. Smallman Galley, for example, is the first Pittsburgh restaurant to sign on as a “Sanctuary Restaurant,” while Lawrenceville’s Constellation Coffee is listed on ROC United’s Diners’ Guide as a “high road” restaurant that meets certain criteria for wages, paid sick days and upward mobility.

“We’re trying to create a platform where everybody has fair pay and everybody plays by the same fair rules,” says Romanus.

Brian Conway

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.