Updated: May 10
As Congress delays the decision of whether or not to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, women like Elizabeth Frame Ellison are taking matters into their own hands.
Elizabeth, CEO of the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation and Founder of the Mother Road Market, a one of a kind food hall in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is increasing pay for non-tipped, hourly workers from $10 to $15 per hour to $13 to $17 per hour in an effort to provide all employees with a living wage.
Based on the raises, MRM is paying 79% to 134% above Oklahoma’s minimum wage of $7.25.
Elizabeth argues waiting on congress is no longer an option and urges industry leaders to take a broader perspective.
“The value we place on the food service industry is evident in our spending habits and the position restaurants have assumed in our culture. Unfortunately, the human beings who are essential for the successful operation of the service industry are not given the same emphasis and prominence.”
The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of service industry employees working the frontline to sustain restaurant operations and maintain America’s food supply. Yet these workers are crashing through the social safety net due to the severe disruption and reduction in the industry workforce in 2020, the poverty wages that are standard in the industry and a minimum wage that has not been properly adjusted since 1968.
A Living Wage Paves The Way For A Brighter Future
Most of the hesitation from policy makers has been the cost to tax payers and perceived burden of increasing wages to business owners who are already hurting. To counter this argument, the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation, which Elizabeth oversees, commissioned an extensive Living Wage Report showcasing the cost of public assistance to frontline workers in the fast-food industry alone is nearly $7 billion per year. Given that more than half of the fast-food workers employed 40 or more hours per week are enrolled in public assistance programs, compared to 25% of the workforce as a whole, makes the argument that not raising wages is already costing the U.S. billions of tax payers dollars.
Since the late 1960s, lawmakers have let the value of the minimum wage erode, allowing inflation to gradually reduce the buying power of a minimum wage income. When the minimum wage has been raised, the report argues increases have been too small to counter the decline in value.
This has resulted in a decline in purchasing power which means low-wage workers have to work longer hours just to achieve the standard of living that was considered the bare minimum half a century ago. Therefore a parent who is the sole breadwinner for her family and who is earning the minimum wage today does not earn enough through full-time work to bring her family above the federal poverty line.
Poverty wages of industry employees have been an issue for a long time, and as the industry has grown to employ more people, low wages have become a larger issue because they impact more people, placing a greater strain on government safety net programs like food stamps, Medicaid and the Children’s Healthcare Insurance Program (CHIP).
The Role of the Food Service Industry
In the United States food service is the second-most common occupation with restaurants employing 12 million people nationwide. In 2016 Americans spent 50% of their monthly food budget eating out. Fueled by this growing trend, bars and restaurants played a significant role in the country’s recovery from the Great Recession.
In addition to increasing in volume, the role food service establishments play in our lives has also become more significant. Restaurants have become the lifeblood of many communities and these “third places” have the opportunity to bridge cultural divides and build community in important and integral ways.
“Mother Road Market is fortunate to see people from a variety of ages and backgrounds come together over a mutual desire to do good and eat well. They want more than just a meal: they want to be a part of supporting the growth of a local startup businesses in the community alongside others who prioritize the same support. They want to “belong” in the same ways they might feel at home, work or among a congregation at a place of worship,” said Elizabeth.
Women in Leadership
Research shows company profits and share performance can be close to 50% higher when women are well represented at the top. Furthermore, senior level women have a vast impact on a company’s and industry culture, as they are more likely to embrace employee-friendly policies and programs to champion racial and gender diversity. In fact, more than 50% of senior-level women say they consistently take a public stand for gender and racial equity at work, compared with about 40% of senior level men. Senior level women are also more likely to mentor and sponsor other women: 38% of senior level women currently mentor or sponsor one or more women of color, compared with only 23% of senior level male peers.
Elizabeth’s leadership is the perfect representation of this as, in addition to increasing wages, part of Mother Road Market’s comprehensive plan to boost the industry, is to support traditionally under-represented communities. Currently its labor force is comprised of 89% female and 67% black, indigenous and people of color. Hourly employees also will receive a monthly meal stipend that can be used to purchase food from MRM merchants. Early on during the pandemic, the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation and Mother Road Market worked with the Oklahoma Restaurant Association to raise funds to support displaced Tulsa area and Oklahoma food industry employees. The fund raised nearly $400,000 dispersed in $1,000 checks to 383 people.
“One of the things we really hope that the livable wage will encourage is really to have more applicants who align with the vision of the foundation,” Elizabeth said. “Of course, we expect that a higher wage will mean more retention of our superstar employees that we already have because they will feel good about the wage that they’re earning and feel supported by our team.”
Click here to read the full A Living Wage Paves the Way for A Brighter Future Report