Nikki Lewis

"You are the consumer: If you dine at a restaurant where workers are treated fairly, you will be rewarded with an experience that does not consume the suffering of those who prepare and serve your food." —Nikki Lewis, 2011

Two days’ notice—that was all Nikki Lewis got when the restaurant that employed her closed in September 2009. Now she’s putting Washington DC’s restaurants on notice. Inspired by the model of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) founded by New York City workers who survived the September 11 attacks, Lewis decided to change the way the District’s restaurant industry does business.

Working late at night to recruit wait-staff, bartenders, prep cooks and dishwashers in steamy kitchens, Lewis built support for her campaign to reform an industry that, as a colleague put it, “keeps us living in poverty as we prepare cook and serve America’s food.” She led a research project that collected data from 500 workers and collaborated with advocates and academics on a comprehensive study called Behind the Kitchen Door: Inequality and Opportunity in DC’s Thriving Restaurant Industry.

Just 18 months after Lewis lost her job the report was released at a summit meeting held on Valentine’s Day, restaurants’ single most profitable day of the year. Panelists at the meeting, including the labor department’s assistant secretary of policy and Nickel and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich, discussed its findings of pervasive occupational segregation, unsafe conditions, wage theft, lack of benefits and a federal minimum “tipped wage” frozen at $2.31 since 1991. The report gained national media attention.

Today, ROC-DC, the center that Lewis co-directs with attorney Bonnie Kwon, boasts more than 300 multiracial member activists who lobby members of Congress to pass an increase in the minimum wage and who have begun to play a role in the growing national movement for workplace justice.

To help restaurants reduce traditionally high staff turnover and place workers in jobs with the possibility of promotion, ROC-DC hosts free courses in fine-dining service and bartending. Other courses are devoted to English as a second language, workers’ rights and leadership skills.

In an industry where close to 90% of employees have no access to employer-based health insurance, ROC offers its own healthcare package to workers including undocumented immigrants for $35 a week. To educate diners Lewis organizes public flash mobs to celebrate restaurateurs who practice fair labor standards — and point the finger at those who violate the law. They fight back against widespread wage theft practices like inequitable tip-sharing or charging workers for their customers’ credit card fees and win settlements.

Tougher to address are issues of gender and racial discrimination that make white men twice as likely as women or men of color to interact with customers in the ‘front of the house,’ and that result in an industry-wide race differential of $4 an hour between whites and workers of color, confining many to menial, low-paying jobs for their entire careers.

Lewis has gained valuable allies at the GWU business school and support from members of Business for a Fair Minimum Wage. In the words of one business owner, “The notion that raising the minimum wage will kill jobs is just bunk. People at the lower end of earnings tend to spend 100 percent of their after-tax income. They put it right back into local businesses buying food, clothing, car repairs and other necessities. When the minimum wage is too low it not only impoverishes productive workers, it weakens consumer demand at the heart of our local economy.”

Nikki Lewis Photo by Dorothea von Haeften