Average pay for workers in restaurants and supermarkets hit $15 an hour for the first time in U.S. history, according to a report in the Washington Post. The bump, which also extends to other workers in food service industries, like butchers and fishmongers, comes amidst one of the most significant periods of accelerated wage growth since the 1980s, and marks a rare bit of positive news for millions of workers who’ve been hit especially hard by the pandemic.
As of June 2021, there were more than 1.5 million vacant jobs at restaurants and hotels across the U.S., while supermarkets are still struggling to retain existing workers and can’t find new ones. Workers are hesitant to return to jobs that have typically paid low wages, especially jobs that place them on the frontlines of a still-raging pandemic without offering adequate protection or benefits. Supermarkets in some states were required to offer hazard pay as the pandemic first grew, but those policies have expired in most places. Even before the policies expired, some supermarkets closed entire megastores in order to avoid making the extra payments, so that should tell you all you need to know about how supermarkets value their employees. As the delta variant spreads throughout large portions of the country, large numbers of workers are saying no to restaurants and supermarkets and reassessing what they want to do going forward.
Faced with a labor shortage — which is actually a shortage of jobs that pay decent wages — some restaurant and supermarket operators are trying to lure workers in with perks like emergency childcare benefits, tuition reimbursement, signing bonuses, and higher hourly wages — all the basic things employers should be offering employees to begin with. The bump in average wages can be attributed in part to these tactics, but it’s important to remember that this moment comes after nearly a decade of agitation for a $15 minimum wage by rank-and-file workers, many of whom work in the fast food industry. In 2012, for example, hundreds of fast food workers in New York City went on strike to demand better pay and recognition of a union called the Fast Food Workers Committee. A decade later, their cause is mainstream, and their agitation is paying off (literally). This moment is a long time coming, and it’s here because workers fought for one another. Still, it’s worth noting that $15 an hour does not constitute a living wage in many parts of the country, especially for families. And it all comes months after Congress failed to pass a $15 federal minimum wage as part of the American Rescue Plan. The federal minimum wage remains at $7.25 an hour, and millions of American still live in poverty.
Restaurant operators who are struggling to find workers, meanwhile, are turning to automation to fill labor gaps. At a White Castle southeast of Chicago, a robot named Flippy has taken over fry cook duties. The robot, which is actually just a robotic arm dressed in a White Castle-branded, grease-proof sleeve, is capable of working 23 hours a day, and has operated continuously for a year. All that without earning a single penny! White Castle isn’t the only restaurant jumping into the automation business: Tel-Aviv-based Kitchen Robotics recently unveiled something called the Beastro, which looks more like a paint mixer than something capable of cooking food. The Beastro works by throwing a bunch of ingredients into a bowl and . . . mixing them around a little bit? The company’s co-founder told the Wall Street Journal that the Beastro can be leased for $7,500 per month and is intended to replace two or three workers in a ghost kitchen operation.
Like Beastro, most automated cooks that currently exist only seem capable of making bowls. Barney Wragg, chief executive of London-based Karakuri robotics, told the Journal that the real challenge of automating restaurant kitchens is making “machines that can manipulate this peculiar, non-conformative, multi-dimensionally deformative substance,” which is also what I call food. It turns out that cooking is a difficult and nuanced thing. Until robots can figure out the complexity of a good stew — the thing Wragg refers to as “a viscous liquid with entrained solids in it” — the job will be left to humans. And they should be paid much, much better for it.