Food Service Industry Workers Are Organizing to Fund Their Own Reproductive Care | Civil Eats

Food Service Industry Workers Are Organizing to Fund Their Own Reproductive Care

Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, groups are galvanizing to create the first national fund focused on service workers, including restaurant workers, delivery workers, bartenders, and those working other jobs where tips are central.

A concerned service industry worker stands behind glass at a restaurant.

Three years ago, Arielle Tess Edwards was living with her husband in Redding, California, caring for three children, including a breastfeeding infant, while working two low-wage service jobs. During the week of her 28th birthday, she learned that she was unexpectedly pregnant.

She knew that a fourth child would stretch her family’s budget impossibly thin. “Because I could not afford another child, I had to go have an abortion,” said Edwards.

But obtaining an abortion proved challenging. Although there was a Planned Parenthood nearby, the clinic had stopped offering abortions because of the threats the clinic had received. Edwards couldn’t find childcare; she had to travel 320 miles round-trip to Sacramento with her family. Both she and her husband had to take off work and set aside funds for the trip. “It was really hard on my husband because he had to take care of [the kids] in the car pretty much the whole day,” said Edwards.

In other words, she pulled it off, but just barely. And she’s aware of the fact that many service workers aren’t so lucky.

That’s why she’s outspoken about the struggle of service workers in accessing reproductive healthcare, advocating as a member of the nonprofit One Fair Wage to improve the restaurant industry’s labor conditions. Most recently, this volunteer work has involved supporting One Fair Wage’s new abortion and reproductive health fund for service workers.

In late July, One Fair Wage, which represents more than 200,000 service workers nationally, partnered with I’ll Have What She’s Having (IHWSH), a Houston, Texas-based nonprofit for workers in the food and beverage industry, to launch the Service Worker Reproductive Access Fund. The fund covers travel for abortions, family planning counseling, contraception, and other reproductive health care services. All tipped service workers can apply online for support, which is offered on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade with its Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling in June, abortion funds across the country have seen a surge in donations. But this is the first national fund focused on service workers, including restaurant workers, delivery workers, sex workers, bartenders, and those working other jobs where tips are central.

Even when abortion was a constitutional right, service workers—a group predominantly comprised of women and people of color who are typically uninsured, earn low wages, and face high rates of sexual assault—have often struggled to access the procedure.

“We’ve known for years that [food workers are] more impacted by reproductive rights issues than pretty much anybody else,” said Saru Jayaraman, the president of One Fair Wage and director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley. “So, when the decision came down, we were already thinking about how we could start to get funds and support out to people.”

The Dobbs decision paved the way for 17 states so far to enact laws banning abortion, at 20 weeks or earlier, including 12 states with near-total bans. The Hyde Amendment, which bars abortion from being performed in federally funded clinics, first passed in 1976, has long inhibited abortion access for service workers and low-income people of color. Yet this has quickly grown dramatically worse under the new wave of highly punitive, extreme restrictions.

“In the majority of states in the U.S., abortion is a catastrophic health expenditure for people,” said Margaret Mary Downey, an assistant professor focused on inequities within reproductive and maternal health at Tulane University’s School of Social Work.

“If we add to that the precarity of tipped workers—the fact that minimum wage laws for tipped workers aren’t even what they are for traditional wage workers [in many states]—all of these economic issues compound,” said Downey.

The Precarity of Working for Tips

One Fair Wage has long advocated for policies that put all tipped workers on an even playing field with other minimum-wage workers. Only seven states require employers to pay tipped workers minimum wage, while the rest allow them to pay tipped workers a lower wage with the idea that it will be supplemented by tips.

Jayaraman sees the inequity these wage laws cause as deeply connected to abortion access, noting that “wages for a lot of these workers are at the core of their ability to do anything at all.”

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In the spring, after the draft of the Dobbs decision was leaked, One Fair Wage’s members began raising concerns about abortion access, spurring the partnership with IHWSH and the new fund.

IHWSH’s coalition of chefs, hospitality professionals, and activists have raised $60,000 through their 1973 Project to fund local reproductive healthcare. This funding stream has since been folded into the national fund with One Fair Wage. A separate fund—the Liz Fenton Purse Snacks Fund—was also established in 2018 to provide mental and reproductive healthcare to food and beverage workers in Houston. Earlier this month, the local fund supported an “IUD Day,” providing free long-term contraception—40 IUDs and 6 vasectomies—to service workers. Both funds are currently navigating the evolving, patchwork legal landscape.

“We want to arrange for anyone to have access to contraception and abortion, and that’s going to be different in every state. For a while, it’s going to be constantly changing. Getting those systems in place is going to take some time,” said Lori Choi, a vascular surgeon and founding member of IHWSH.

The national fund, the first of its kind, addresses a longstanding, widening gap in abortion access for service workers. Edwards, of One Fair Wage, notes that this would have been beneficial to her throughout her career as a service worker—from the time she needed to have an abortion to the time she paid for her own emergency contraception as a teen with the money she had earned delivering pizzas.

As the cost of food and gas spikes, Edwards sees more service industry workers struggling to build the families they want—whether that means seeking out an abortion or providing for kids they choose to have.

“There are parents in the service industry, and they still can’t feed their kids while they are serving other people’s food,” said Edwards. “We’ve had a set budget for food for the past year. Now, halfway through the month, our budget isn’t lasting.”

Service Workers Organizing for Each Other

The newly launched national abortion fund is one of many projects that have developed among service workers to support each other, financially and otherwise, in accessing reproductive healthcare and basic needs.

“This workforce emerged as this incredibly important workforce during COVID, the people who make and bring us food,” said Downey of Tulane. “We’re starting to also get kind of a collective consciousness around that. It was this time to think beyond just the day-to-day survival together.”

The growing solidarity among hospitality workers also led to the formation of New Orleans’s Good Trouble Network, which hosts monthly fundraisers for different social causes with a slogan of “Eat Well & Fuck Racism.” In July, they hosted a dinner with symbolically laden menu items—blood stew, baby lamb, papaya, and pineapple, (playing on a myth that these foods elicit abortions) seafood ceviche, and an apple desert mocking biblical folklore—to raise money for two local abortion funds, which many of the town’s service workers rely upon.

“When you can joke about something, it takes power away from the oppressors. So, we decided to encourage all our participating chefs to have fun with the menu,” said Hannah Epstein, an oyster shucker on the board of directors for the network.

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In Houston, the pandemic spurred a similarly unified community among the city’s service workers, and some progressive restaurant owners have developed polices to help make their spaces more conducive to gathering and organizing.

“The burden goes straight to you, as a business owner, to really participate in those communities and support what they’re wanting,” said Lindsay Rae Burleson, the owner of the Two Headed Dog bar in Houston and a volunteer with IHWSH. This can look like opening up the restaurant for community meetings or donating a dollar from a menu item to the ACLU as a signal of support, she said.

“I feel like taverns, coffee shops, and bars are these amazing third places that historically have been where movements came out of in America,” said Burleson. “It’s where you got your news; it’s where you got your information.”

The news that Burleson most often likes to share: how service workers can get an IUD, wellness exam, or get their other reproductive health needs met through IHWSH.

Grey Moran is a Staff Reporter for Civil Eats. Their work has appeared in The Atlantic, Grist, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Intercept, and elsewhere. Grey writes narrative-based stories about public health, climate change, and environmental justice, especially with a lens on the people working toward solutions. They live in New Orleans. Read more >

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