Sean Degnan is no stranger to activism. While in college studying English and theater, he attended so many protests on campus that he missed classes and wound up on academic probation.
While this passion for advocacy may not have been great for his GPA, it has been an underlying theme in the way he runs his businesses. Recently, Degnan’s two Triangle area restaurants, SoCa and kō-än, implemented a $15 an hour minimum wage and instituted 14 days of paid sick leave for each employee—groundbreaking policies in the world of hospitality.
“Our industry is going through a reckoning right now,” says Degnan. Spurred by the recent COVID-19 pandemic, Degnan and his teams at both SoCa and kō-än worked together to rethink the way they run their restaurants in a world that was no longer safe for all. They rewrote their mission, values and vision while remaining committed to sustainable hospitality.
It all began with the decision to provide sick time to restaurant employees. “If you’re going to reopen a restaurant in a pandemic,” says Degnan, “then you’ve got to incentivize people to stay home if they don’t feel well.”
Prior to the COVID crisis, less than half of employees in the hospitality and food service industry received any paid sick leave, and 60 percent of service and retail workers report going into work sick, in large part because they lacked access to paid sick leave.
In a world facing a global pandemic, the SoCa and ko-an teams knew it was time to change. The 14 days at SoCa and kō-än was based on quarantine guidelines for those who are having symptoms of or have tested positive for COVID-19. This level of paid sick leave also provides peace of mind to employees afraid to lose money if they miss a shift—money that their family may need to provide basic essentials. On top of lost wages, working parents without paid sick time are also more likely to accrue higher family medical expenses.
The next logical step after sick leave was to implement a $15 an hour living wage. Because so many restaurant workers supplement the $2.13 an hour minimum wage in their industry with tips, the SoCa and kō-än teams knew that wage was not enough financial security to help people make the choice to safely stay at home.
“You can’t be incentivized to stay home when you’re sick if you don’t make enough money when you stay home,” says Degnan.
The new wages and sick leave have made a significant impact on the employees in each restaurant. Francisco Almaguer, the pastry chef at kō-än, recalls telling the prep people in the kitchen about their new wages. “I was just about to cry because you could see the relief and happiness on their faces.” Almaguer says these new policies, especially the paid sick leave, makes employees feel comfortable enough to speak up and say, I’m not feeling well. It’s a large burden off the shoulders of every member of the restaurant staff and their families.
Degnan and all the staff hope this is a shift for the industry as a whole. “We’re trying to be the guinea pigs,” says Degnan, “the ones who jumped first to see what happens.”
Almaguer, though, has seen changes like this before and hoped to see them again one day. After immigrating to the US from Mexico, Almaguer worked his way up from dishwasher to chef in restaurants in California. In that time, he worked with one chef who announced to the staff that she would be raising the minimum wage. “She said, ‘I don’t think what we’re doing is right. You live in San Francisco on a minimum wage and it’s impossible.’ And she raised the minimum wage to $12 an hour,” he says. That was 14 years ago, and Almaguer never thought he’d see that again.
“The $2.13 an hour had been thrown in my face so much,” says Degnan, “but you’re allowed to pay people more than that. If you’re paying the minimum you can pay, that’s your choice, but you can be competitive and pay people more than that. And then we did. And everyone is prouder of the work we’re doing.”
Including Almaguer who’s excited to be a part of these changes. “I waited 14 years to see this, and to be a part of it just brings tears to my eyes.”
Sample benefits: SoCa and kō-än restaurants
- $15 and hour minimum wage
- 14 days of paid sick leave
- Health insurance (coming soon)
- Paid maternity and paternity leave