For Patrick Whalen, co-owner of the 5th Street Group, comprising five restaurants in Charleston and Charlotte, the breaking point came in late March.After one of his managers told him that a line cook needed to borrow money to get groceries, Whalen was moved to reconsider wages at the company. "It was just one of those moments where you just kind of stop and you say, Is there a real problem in our industry?'" he said. "We always kind of knew it was there, but we didn't really know what to do with it." It's wonderful that the invisible hand of capitalism is finally dropping more shekels into the baskets of its workers, but this is one of the most frustrating thing about supposed "free market" economics. It should be obvious to anyone why our safety net programs dole out such meager benefits. Business lobbies and business friendly politicians have intentionally designed them to provide far less than is needed by anyone to survive so that even low wage employment is preferable to being unemployed. This has systematically kept wages far lower than they should be given the massive profitability of larger businesses. And smaller businesses can still thrive paying higher wages even if they have to raise prices modestly. Price increases are a part of business for myriad reasons. Paying better wages should not be anathema any more than raising prices because of increases in every other type of expense small businesses encounter.
The company raised the starting wage for all of its staff to $15 an hour, up from $12 to $13. And it created a "tip the kitchen" program, adding a second line to table checks for gratuity for the back-of-the-house staff, which the restaurant matches up to $500 per night. That move has increased wages for non-tipped employees such as line cooks and dishwashers to an average of $23.80 an hour, Whalen said.
Applicants began pouring in nearly overnight, Whalen said. A manager at one of his restaurants, Tempest, told him that 10 people walked in to drop off rsums over the course of one week after the policy change, compared with just 15 people over the four previous months.
Within three weeks, the restaurant group went from about 50 to 60 percent staffed to nearly fully staffed.
"There is no one in Charleston or Charlotte that can compete with what my guys are making," Whalen said.
Aaron Dearing, a sous chef at Whalen's 5Church Charlotte, said the tipping initiative had raised his pay by about $1,000 a month " the biggest raise he has received in 20 years in the industry.
"It puts everybody in a better position in their home life, so they come to work a lot happier," he said.
The pandemic and the need to provide extraordinary support for tens of millions has reoriented American business and tipped some leverage onto the side of workers. I for one, couldn't be happier for all those finding their lives a bit happier and more secure these days.