Boycott the Anti-Worker Surcharge

Workers in the Fight For $15 movement have sparked dozens of minimum wage increases over the past six-and-a-half years. Workers have also won the battle of public opinion: even the majority of Republican voters now support their efforts. But businesses who profit off low wages, particularly those in the food industry, aren’t ready to concede defeat. When they’re not hoodwinking media outlets with an astroturf group that pretends to represent workers’ interests, restaurants are campaigning hard against higher wages at the point of service.

Adding a small surcharge to your bill is one aspect of restaurants’ anti-worker campaign. Those that employ this practice should be boycotted.

What is the surcharge and where might you see it?

The surcharge is an added cost that a business links to pro-worker legislation. It is presented differently in different establishments. Customers who look closely may just see a line item that says “living wage surcharge” or “mandates surcharge” when they get their checks. Some restaurants may put a note about the charge in small font at the bottom of their menus. Others may put up a sign explaining the added costs.

Signs and menu notes often assert the organization’s support for the benefits that ostensibly led to the surcharge. Don’t be fooled. The note, and the charge, are designed to prejudice customers against living wage policies.

How do we know the surcharge is anti-worker?

Consumers don’t like surprising add-ons; when you go somewhere expecting to pay menu price and then end up needing to pay more, you’re usually annoyed. Business owners who put a surcharge on their menus know that and want you to tie your annoyance to legislation that makes them compensate their employees more fairly.

Note that the labor involved in making, selling, and/or serving a product is only one of many factors that influence a product’s price. The cost of purchasing the ingredients or materials needed to make a product matters, as do rent, utilities costs, advertising spending, and a variety of other business expenses. Have you ever seen a “rent increase surcharge” on a menu? How about an “advertising fee?” Since a business owner’s desired profit may be the biggest factor in the prices that business owner sets, the most honest note on a menu would probably be something along the lines of: “The price of this hamburger is $15 because of the lifestyle of Mr. Smith, the owner of this restaurant and four other restaurants in the city, who lives in a $1.5 million house, drives a Porsche, and is looking forward to his three-week stay at a Hawaiian resort this summer.”

That’s not to say it’s necessarily unethical for businesses to raise prices after a minimum wage increase. While minimum wage increases don’t tend to influence prices very much – in part because they can lead to a higher volume of sales (due to increased demand for businesses’ products), efficiency gains (e.g., lower turnover), and/or more equal distributions of wealth within companies (by shifting profits from owners to workers) – it’s reasonable for prices to be one channel through which businesses with small profit margins absorb added costs. But it is both unreasonable and unethical for a business to itemize labor costs and nothing else. When you see a wage surcharge or note tying price increases to wage increases on a menu, what the business is really saying is that, if it weren’t for the law, they’d be paying their workers a more exploitative wage. And that they’re hoping your annoyance about the surprise charge they’ve added will convince you they should be able to do so.

How can you challenge the surcharge?

The next time you see a business embracing this practice, ask to speak to the owner. Explain why their policy is unacceptable and ask them to change it. If they refuse, let them know that you’ll be boycotting their business until they change their mind. Then leave a note in the comments of this post or send a direct message to @BenSpielberg on Twitter to get the business added to the list below.

CALIFORNIA RESTAURANTS TO BOYCOTT

San José

Ike’s Love and Sandwiches
510-309-9909
aizleforhr@loveandsandwiches.com
Submitted by: Ben Spielberg

Ike's.png

Notes: I emailed Aizle Alejandrino, their HR specialist, who wrote back on March 6, 2019 that, “After some discussions, our corporate team has decided to pull the surcharge by end of Q1.” On April 10, however, their surcharge sign was still up in the branch I visited and none of the employees knew about the corporate team’s decision. I emailed Aizle to ask for clarification and have not yet heard back.

Village California Bistro
408-248-9091
john@thevillagebistro.net
Submitted by: Ben Spielberg

Village Bistro

Notes: I emailed management and they never responded.

San Francisco

Greens Restaurant
415-771-6222
info@greensrestaurant.com
Submitted by: Ben Spielberg

Greens

Notes: I had a nice email exchange with Min Kim, their general manager. Min said they support all the pro-worker legislation in San Francisco and said “I do understand your push to include costs in the menu. But, I also do believe you and I would not be having this conversation if it wasn’t separated.” Min indicated interest in discussing the issue further but has not responded to my follow-up emails.

Palo Alto

Local Union 271
650-322-7509
hello@localunion271.com
Submitted by: Ben Spielberg

Local Union 271

Notes: I emailed management and they never responded.

Mayfield Bakery and Café
650-823-9200
info@mayfieldbakery.com
Submitted by: Ben Spielberg

Mayfield.png

Notes: Founding Partner Tim Stannard wrote to me that “The issue of labor surcharges is a difficult and thorny issue for us…It’s probably too complex to go into in an email, but if you send me your phone number I’d be happy to give you a call to try to explain.” Tim left me a message and said he was interested in chatting about the issue but then stopped returning my emails and follow-up calls.

WASHINGTON RESTAURANTS TO BOYCOTT

Check out this comprehensive list from Working Washington.

5 Comments

Filed under Business, Labor

5 responses to “Boycott the Anti-Worker Surcharge

  1. Congressman Spielberg: I want to note that (IMHO), the “Fight for $15/hr” campaign grew out of the Occupy Wall Street protests, back in 2011-2012, as did Bernie’s initial campaign. Although the protests fizzled, their legacy defines their success (I believe), and continues to reverberate. As a recent article in the New York Times noted(April 24, 2019): “Americans Are Seeing Highest Minimum Wage in History (Without Federal Help) Because of a string of moves by states and cities in recent years, the effective average is almost at $12 an hour.” This, as well, is due directly to the initial impetus provided by Occupy Wall Street. Which raises interesting questions about how to define “successful” activist interventions.
    Love,
    Not Congressman Block

  2. Moe Burgundy

    Heads up, the minimum wage surcharge at Local Union 271 is now 5%. Other restaurants might have raised it due to the new minimum wage laws kicking in (Palo Alto’s is now $15).

  3. Scott Greene

    You might find this argument (and the comments) interesting, from the always-worthwhile Benjamin Studebaker:

    https://benjaminstudebaker.com/2015/07/23/misconceptions-raising-the-minimum-wage-does-not-automatically-lead-to-inflation/

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