Restaurant workers celebrate Biden-Harris inauguration, hold them to campaign promises

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Photo by Dean Moses

Restaurant workers are celebrating the Biden-Harris pre-inauguration by erecting a 24-foot tall Elena the Essential Worker statue in the East Village.

On Jan. 19, essential service workers gathered at Elisa’s Love Bites on 441 East 9th Street in the Lower Manhattan to host an early salute to the President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris while also showcasing their support of #BuildBackBetter plan, which is said to provide a standard fair wage to all workers.

One of the many platforms the Biden campaign pushed over the course of their run was that of a fair and living wage across the United States. Restaurant workers have been some of the hardest hit occupations during the pandemic. For the past 11 months, these essential workers have waited with bated breath for Biden’s proposed relief package, especially restaurant workers who have for years struggled to survive off of bare minimum wage. Biden promises to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Coordinated by One Fair Wage, the celebratory occasion served as more than just a toast to the new president. It was a moment to bring awareness to the plight of a restaurant worker and the daily abuses they undergo without the feeling of financial security to support them when they want to speak up.

The restaurant workers gathered beneath the Elena the Essential Worker effigy. Photo by Dean Moses

“We are here to thank the Biden-Harris administration for stepping up and advocating for what we deserve but also holding them accountable and making sure that this actually goes through,” said Gemma Rossi, the lead New York organizer for One Fair Wage.

Rossi, like many of the restaurant workers in attendance, is aware that there is a great deal of work laid out for the Biden-Harris administration, so they took a moment to congratulate the new president and vice president while also reminding them of their promise.

“We’ve been fighting for more than a decade to raise the sub-minimum wage, but really since COVID hit over the last year, workers–not just in New York but around the country–have really stepped up to mobilize right now. A lot of workers prior to the pandemic maybe felt a little be indifferent about having a full wage before tips out of the fear it would take their tips away. They are realizing now the value of having a full wage that they can count on. Partly because a lot of restaurant workers really struggled to access unemployment insurance due to their sub-minimum wage, but also tips are down right now,” Rossi said.

The life of a service worker is no easy feat. The hours are either long for the little they earn or dwindling since the financial losses caused by the pandemic. Several of those in attendance shared horror stories about moments crying beneath a set of stairs at their job due to the the constant harassment and mistreatment by management and customers.

Essential workers push for higher wages. Photo by Dean Moses

One woman shared that having a $15 minimum wage would allow her to feel secure enough to stop customers and even members of management from sexually harassing her. “You can’t really say anything to a customer,” she said firmly, adding that an increase in her wage would make a world of a difference. “It opens the door for me to say I’m not going to take that disrespect because I’m already getting paid and I don’t need to take this,” she said.

Each worker took a moment to share their personal experiences beneath a 24-foot-tall effigy of Elena the Essential worker, an artistic spin on Rosie the Riveter, a World War II poster with the motto, “We Can Do It!”

The rally pushed to inaugurate change and wants everyone to be reminded that essential workers have been on the frontlines during this pandemic and deserve to be recognized and not left behind in relief packages.

“We’re going to be celebrating in cities across the country and make sure that the Biden administration hears us loud and clear: essential service workers have held up our country during this pandemic, and we’re not going anywhere until we get the full, fair wages that we need. And we are counting on the incoming Biden-Harris administration to deliver,” explained Saru Jayaraman, President and co-founder of One Fair Wage in a press release.

“It is time to restore the soul of our country, and that includes the heartbeat of our economy: independent restaurants, our team members, and our communities. 500,000 small businesses and nearly fourteen million workers look forward to building back better.  We trust the Biden Harris administration to remember that every human is essential, and every job has dignity,” Jayaraman added.

Additional reporting by Amanda Moses

“One Fair Wage Now” workers demanded. Photo by Dean Moses