It’s no secret that the restaurant industry is facing one of the worst labor shortages in history. Couple that with the fact that restaurants are the largest employer of immigrants, Muslims, and LGBTQ individuals — all vulnerable populations today — and staffing gets a lot more challenging.
That tension is part of the inspiration behind Sanctuary Restaurants, an organization founded to stand up for the rights of restaurant workers, owners, and consumers. We spoke with Saru Jayaraman, Executive Director and Co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United, one of the groups that helped launch the Sanctuary Restaurants movement. Here, she shares the inspiration behind the project and how owners and operators can serve their employees and communities.
Tell us the story behind Sanctuary Restaurants. What spurred the creation of it?
Even before this election, a lot of our industry partners were reporting that this is the worst labor shortage they’ve seen. When the election happened and there was all the rhetoric of hate — discriminatory policies against immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ individuals, women — our employer partners became very concerned that what was already a difficult situation for them, in which they had a hard time hiring and retaining workers, was going to become even more difficult.
We had some employers report that workers were terrified to even show up for work, there was tension and fighting among staff, workers were being harassed by customers who felt empowered by the rhetoric. Our employer leaders came together and decided to write an open letter to President Trump saying, business owner to business owner, please don’t make this more difficult for us. We don’t need a hostile environment for all the most vulnerable workers in our industry.
Why is the restaurant industry specifically affected?
We are the largest employer of every one of those vulnerable populations — of immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ individuals — everybody. To have an industry that’s already going through this shortage now facing incredible tension among these vulnerable workers, this is not what we need. What we need is a path to citizenship for these workers, our employees.
They wrote the letter and, to make it more visible, came up collectively with the term Sanctuary Restaurants. The motto is “a place at the table for everyone.” As a Sanctuary Restaurant, they are a community space that is open to every kind of worker and every kind of customer. They would not tolerate any kind of discrimination based on anyone’s identity, whether it’s their political beliefs or religious/ethnic identity, or their status as an immigrant.
How are Sanctuary Restaurants identified?
First they created signs and stickers, but we also wanted a way to support workers as well. We partnered with Presente.org, which is the largest Latinx online organization in the United States. They helped us create a web platform and a mobile texting system in which workers can text into a number to get rapid response support should anything happen in a restaurant, any kind of discrimination or harassment emergency.
Workers, consumers, and employers can all join. Employers and workers who join are invited to join legal presentations and webinars where they learn their rights and best practices for how to deal with these issues. Consumers are given cards that they can hand out to their favorite restaurant owners or managers. And they can hand out cards to workers with the mobile text number. Consumers can be one of best tools to grow this, and the employers involved feel like it’s very important to grow it so that it really begins to have some power and voice.
What kind of engagement have you seen from those groups?
Since we launched the program in early January more than 400 restaurants have signed on, about 1,000 workers, and about 15,000 consumers. It’s been rapid growth, with a lot of press attention and a lot of support from the industry.
We’ve been pleasantly surprised that so many restaurateurs are being so courageous in standing up and saying, we need a safe, welcoming environment for all these people because we rely on all of these people — and because we care about them. They are our families and communities.
What stories are you hearing from restaurants about what workers are facing?
There have been some raids. We have seen some instances of consumers feeling empowered to say harassing, discriminatory things to workers or employers. We’ve seen some employers who are not part of the program retaliate against workers for participating in the Day Without Immigrant marches and strikes.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen harassments come from co-workers, from consumers, and in other instances, employers. We’ve also seen a lot of employers who see the level of fear and division in their own restaurant. One employer in New York said to me, “It really feels like 9/11 all over again.” Nobody’s eating out, and people feel scared — to be in public places in some cases, to be around other people. It’s really about trying to create a sanctuary space in restaurants: this is a safe place anybody can come to and enjoy themselves and be treated with hospitality, which is what our industry is really about.
What do restaurants need to know about protecting their workers right now? Any tips?
Being in a collective space is the safest place. Joining something like Sanctuary Restaurants, being with other employers who are concerned about the same things, being able to learn from one another about what’s happening.
One of the best things about Sanctuary Restaurants is that there is an army of legal defense: so many attorneys right now that are gearing up to support immigrants and Muslims, which is great. There is safety in numbers, safety in knowing what’s happening in our industry in other parts of country, and hearing from lawyers with industry expertise who can provide that kind of support.
For example, we had employers in one case who were dealing with some hateful customers, and another from Maine said, here’s an email I sent to customers and how I dealt with it. It was a real learning moment for a lot of employers in other parts of the country for how they could deal with similar situations. That’s the benefit of an industry-specific group. Our group is of employers who care deeply about their workers’ well-being, who want to see them survive and thrive. They think, “We do better when they do better.”