Grant program aims to boost pay for restaurant workers in Prince George’s Co.

One of the hardest parts of running a restaurant coming out of the pandemic has been hiring good workers, and keeping the ones who are good from leaving.

It doesn’t help that other jurisdictions around the D.C. region pay more, with D.C., specifically, phasing in a raise from $5 per hour to $16.10 in the coming years.

To help bridge the gap, the advocacy group One Fare Wage and Capital One have teamed up to offer grants to restaurants to help pay their workers $15 per hour, plus whatever tips workers earn.

Advocates said 20,000 restaurant workers in Maryland have already left the industry in recent years.

“Maryland is about to lose a lot more workers come July 1, when the wage goes up to $8 per hour [in DC] and Maryland is still at $3.63,” said Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage.

“Workers in Prince George’s County can wake up in the morning, go across the border and get more than double the wage and it’s going to keep going up next year and the year following until it’s finally five times the wage in Maryland.”

She argued that’s an enormous incentive for a worker to go work in D.C. instead.

Under the terms of the program, restaurants in Prince George’s can apply for grants worth between $5,000 and $7,500.

That money is used for funding, training and support for restaurants. Jayaraman said they’ll work with restaurants to teach them how to raise the wages of workers — while still being profitable. The restaurants just have to commit to hitting the $15 per hour mark by the end of this year.

“It starts at home. It starts with taking care of the people that do the job,” said Russell Jackson, the chef and owner of Reverence, a highly acclaimed restaurant in Harlem, and a believer in what he describes as fair wagers for workers. He said instead of making it “us versus them,” paying workers more will lead to better service and better business for the restaurant.

The total amount of grant money available is $150,000. Leaders in Prince George’s County acknowledged more might need to be done in the future to prop up businesses.

“It’s very tough right now to attract good staff. It’s also very tough to make ends meet,” said Prince George’s County Council member Mel Franklin. “Those are two headwinds that are hitting each other.”

He said the incentive program is a good start, but it might take more to help small, minority owned restaurants in the county.

“I actually do think you’re going to have to assist our small, minority-owned restaurants with subsidizing to pay some of the wages for this transition to really happen.

“If you’re hearing from small and minority-owned restaurants that they can’t make this transition financially, it’s going to make it politically harder to make this a reality. So what we’re going to have to do I think is put our heads together as a county but also a state and say, ‘How can we help our small and minority-owned restaurants financially make this transition?’” Franklin said.

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John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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