A new labor group tactic: Pittsburgh businesses earn positive ratings
April 5, 2016 12:00 AM
Mixtape co-owners Elaina Holko, left, and Katie Molchan at their cafe, event space and "music gallery" in Garfield. Mixtape is the first business to receive a “Worker-Approved Business” designation by Pittsburgh United and city Councilwoman Deb Gross.
By Daniel Moore / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A workers’ rights campaign often involves making a lot of noise about an employer with public rallies, sign waving, demand letters, threats of litigation and exposures of bad management practices.
Now a restaurant labor group in Pittsburgh is trying a different approach: It’s begun recognizing businesses that it believes supports workers by offering better wages and benefits, adopting policies like paid sick leave and eliminating the tipped minimum wage.
Last week, the Restaurant Opportunities Center United of Pittsburgh presented its first “Worker-Approved Business” designation to Mixtape, a cafe and event space that opened in Garfield in January.
“Mixtape is a small business in our community proving that businesses can both treat their workers fairly and still make a profit,” said Jordan Romanus, lead organizer with R.O.C. United of Pittsburgh. “We believe that it’s time to start highlighting local businesses that offer living wages and benefits and call for a statewide adoption of one fair wage for all workers.”
The initiative marks a new strategy for groups that have generated ire from business organizations with their campaigns. R.O.C. United has, for example, waged a long-running campaign against Darden Restaurants, the Orlando-based owner of brands such as Olive Garden and Red Lobster, over the tipped minimum wage and the elimination of automatic tips for large parties.
Last month, the group held a rally in front of bZ’s, a recently shuttered sports bar across from PNC Park, to criticize the owner and claim that workers were still owed pay.
The “Worker-Approved” campaign is supported by Pittsburgh United, the coalition that led a paid sick leave campaign last year that led to the passage of a Pittsburgh City Council ordinance. That law is being challenged in court by a restaurant trade group and is expected to reach the state Supreme Court.
“We see this collaboration as an important continuation of our work with city council and [Mayor Bill Peduto’s] administration to both hold employers accountable and raise up the businesses that invest in our community,” said Alex Wallach Hanson, organizer for Pittsburgh United.
From its conception, Mixtape set out to be a standard-bearer for better worker conditions, said co-owner Katie Molchan. Among other policies, the cafe most notably has eliminated tips and raised the average starting hourly wage to about $15 an hour for every employee.
Servers at restaurants with tips can have big nights, “You might go home with $500 for the night,” Ms. Molchan explained. “But there’s this misconception that every night is like that, when in fact you might have one night like that is a week, or a month, or three months.
“You are losing that one big night, but you’re trading it in for a more stable, consistent wage,” she said. “While you know you’re not going to have that $500 night, you know you’re not going to have that $8 night, either.”
In Pennsylvania, tipped workers at restaurants can earn base wages as low as $2.83 an hour, under the assumption that they can reach at least the minimum wage of $7.25 through tips. A tip-free restaurant — with higher menu prices to compensate for higher base wages — got national attention after Danny Meyer’s New York City-based restaurant chain abolished tips late last year.
In Pittsburgh, the concept has caught on at few restaurants. Bar Marco in the Strip District implemented it a year ago.
As a start-up with six employees, Ms. Molchan acknowledged, Mixtape had the advantage of developing policies from scratch and on a small scale. On the other hand, she said, it’s tough to sacrifice revenue.
“I can tell you that if we paid our workers $2.83 [an hour], we would be months closer to reaching profitability and paying off the start-up loans,” she said.
R.O.C. United plans to hold events for more restaurants around Pittsburgh in coming week, Mr. Romanus said, and gather enough data to expand its smartphone app, called “Diners’ Guide,” in Pittsburgh by summer.
Currently available in nine other cities including Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City, the app allows users to see which restaurants in their area meet certain standards like higher wages and worker-friendly policies.
Daniel Moore: email@example.com, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.