The facts are staggering. In the city of San Francisco, if you have a minimum wage job, such as a food runner or dishwasher in a restaurant, you would need to work 171.5 hours per week in order to afford a fair market apartment in the city. There are 168 hours in a week. Therefore, it is impossible to rent an apartment in San Francisco if you work a minimum wage job in San Francisco. The question then becomes: What does ‘minimum wage’ mean? Nothing, unfortunately. A wage is not a wage if that wage doesn’t allow you to pay your basic living needs.
Something is wrong, and Ephraim Colbert, a representative for Restaurant Opportunities Centers United that works with low-income restaurant workers, is trying to create positive change. Ephraim said that those who struggle most in the restaurant industry are back-of-house workers - line cooks, dishwashers, and bussers - the majority of whom are people of color.
“It’s very common to see people of color in the back of house positions and they tend to be Latino,” said Ephraim. “It doesn't really have anything to do with capabilities. It's more of an unconscious bias, racial tradition that has just been upheld.”
In wealthy counties like Marin, north of San Francisco, Ephraim said that the racial and income divide in restaurants is most obvious. “In a place like Marin, if a server has a strong Latino accent, he may find himself being stuck as a busser or a back of house worker. Not because of his abilities, but because of his accent and the comfort level of what they (restaurant owners) believe the audience (customers) may be willing to interact with.”
Ephraim talks with restaurant owners and workers each week, trying to better understand the struggle from both sides. He said that, in our times, telling someone what’s right or wrong doesn’t seem to work, so he tries to show what he’s learned through storytelling. “If you provide a story to the individual and make it more human, they have a harder time arguing against that.”
Ephraim is proud to be working in the San Francisco area, having moved from Albuquerque, New Mexico, eleven years ago. Even with the ongoing fight to achieve a livable wage for all restaurant employees, Ephraim is happy to call the Bay Area his home. He said that, “The Bay is changing like the rest of the country into this very polished, commercialized version of itself, but there still are a lot of people here that are deeply involved in activism, do care about the environment, do care about food. They have empathy for others and that is something that can be hard to find in other places.”