A new film documents the struggle of restaurant workers who rely on tips

Albany-based filmmaker Abby Ginzberg’s documentary “Waging Change” spotlights the movement to change the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 an hour.

Abby Ginzberg's new documentary "Waging Change" features restaurant worker advocate, Saru Jayaraman, director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley and founder of the One Fair Wage campaign. Photo: One Fair Wage
Abby Ginzberg’s new documentary Waging Change features restaurant worker advocate, Saru Jayaraman, director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley and founder of the One Fair Wage campaign. Photo: One Fair Wage

In early 2015, Abby Ginzberg attended a luncheon put on by Equal Rights Advocates, a nonprofit legal organization devoted to advancing opportunities for women and girls. The featured speaker was Saru Jayaraman, director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley and founder of the One Fair Wage campaign.

Ginzberg had never heard of Jayaraman before, nor was she familiar with Jayaraman’s cause — fighting for full, fair minimum waged for tipped workers. In many states, Ginzberg learned at the luncheon, no matter what the minimum wage might be, restaurants are only required to pay tipped workers $2.13 an hour.

“When I heard that, I almost fell off my chair,” Ginzberg told Nosh. “I’m an educated person with a lot of concern about working people and labor issues. How did I not know this?”

If she didn’t know, Ginzberg said, she reasoned that many others didn’t either. And as an independent filmmaker, she hoped shedding light on this fact could, she said, “make a contribution to helping people see how we get into the extremes of economic inequality that we’re in.”

The resulting film, Waging Change, airs on KQED this Friday, Feb. 19.

Ginzberg, who lives in Albany and works in Berkeley, has lived in the Bay Area for decades, spending her first two decades in San Francisco, but then moving to the East Bay in 1991. A veteran independent filmmaker, she has won numerous awards for her films, including a Peabody, which recognizes digital storytelling that makes a social impact. Her films most often focus on issues of race and equity.

Ginzberg said that in choosing her subject matter, she considers several factors: Will she be able to sustain interest in the topic for the next – possibly – five years? Will she learn something by doing it? And does she think a film on the subject can move the needle in any way?

With all of those questions answered in the affirmative, she used her contacts to get a meeting with Jayaraman, who after watching some of her work, gave her the green light to go forward.

There are 17 states where tipped workers need only be paid $2.13 an hour. The seven states that require restaurants to pay their staff minimum wage are all on the West Coast, California among them. The rest are somewhere in the middle. (When eating in restaurants was still the norm, Ginzberg always checked which states and restaurants paid their workers a living wage before she ate there. She also tips more generously than she ever did before, she said.)

In Waging Change, we meet people like Wardell Harvey, a server in New Orleans who needs to pick up extra shifts as a barber to earn enough money to feed his children. He often ends up working 16-hour days, which leaves very little time to be with his family.

There’s a bit of star power in the movement. Ginzberg documents how actors Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin take up the cause in Michigan, and New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shares her own experience in the restaurant industry.

Abby Ginzberg's "Waging Change" documentary features Lily Tomlin canvassing in Michigan for restaurant workers.
Actor Lily Tomlin appears in Waging Change canvassing in Michigan for restaurant workers. Photo: Abby Ginzberg

We also get a glimpse into Jayaraman’s career co-founding Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), organizing restaurant workers in New York in the aftermath of 9/11. Those who had worked at Windows on the World, on top of one of the Twin Towers, and were lucky enough to not be at work that day, had no job to go back to, no safety net and nowhere to turn for help.

It’s well-known in the documentary world that when you set out to make a movie, a lot can happen in the five or so years it takes to make it, and the filmmaker may end up with a very different film than they set out to make. The first action that Ginzberg shot was a group of restaurant workers marching in Washington, D.C., in 2018 to support an initiative on the ballot to raise the minimum wage for tipped workers in the district, despite members of the National Restaurant Association lobbying against it.

As the film goes on to show, the initiative passed, which Ginzberg felt would be a hopeful note to end on. But the story didn’t end there.

“The D.C. city council would overturn the decision by voters to eliminate it, and that put me in the film for another year,” she said. “It was such a direct threat to democracy, and stunning that that could happen, I had to include it.”

But that was only one thing she didn’t anticipate; there were two other completely unanticipated events that would affect the restaurant industry in massive ways.

One was the #metoo movement. While women in foodservice being sexually harassed was nothing new, the openness in which they shared their stories was.

The other was  COVID-19. While a version of Waging Change was shown in film festivals in 2019, when the pandemic hit, the country’s restaurants were forced to close virtually overnight. And as restaurants don’t report tips as wages, restaurant workers who make $2.13 an hour don’t earn enough to receive unemployment. Ginzberg realized Waging Change wasn’t finished — she still had work to do and more material to add.

Ginzberg started by thinking, “How do we come out of this so we don’t go back to the things that weren’t working before? All of these changes needed to be made long before COVID. COVID just made everything worse.”

With a new administration in power, and the restaurant industry in such crisis, Ginzberg believes we are at an inflection point, and her film couldn’t be more timely.

“We can no longer have this two-tiered system,” she said. “It’s too close to slave wages.”

Waging Change premieres on KQED at 8 p.m., Friday, Feb. 19.