Simone Jacobson believes the healthcare system in America is broken, and she doesn’t think her employees at Burmese newcomer Thamee can afford to wait for legislators to fix it. Starting today, the hot spot on H Street will add a 4 percent charge to customers’ bills along with a short explanation about how the “wellness provision” will help the restaurant cover the cost of “quality health benefits” and “encourage self-care” for the staff.
“We don’t have to wait for a government or a policy or a law to tell us ... the right thing to do here,” Jacobson says.
The 4 percent charge will cover health, dental, and vision insurance for every employee who works at least 30 hours. The money in the wellness fund that’s left over after insurance costs will be equally redistributed to every employee regardless of the amount of hours worked. Employees can then use that money to pursue their own care however they see fit.
Jacobson, who co-owns the restaurant with chef Jocelyn Law-Yone (her mother) and Eric Wang, says the redistribution fund could go toward extra money to pay for a massage or take a parent out to dinner. It could mean the money for hypnosis, acupuncture, a gym membership, or a professional retreat.
“What does wellness actually mean?” she asks. “Healthcare is for when you get sick. And you can use it as preventative care. But what does it mean to be well? For me what it means is you have a little bit peace of mind.”
Thamee’s wellness charge is modeled after the one local star chef Kevin Tien instituted at Hot Lola’s, his Sichuan hot chicken counter in Ballston Quarter, which is also 4 percent. Aaron Silverman told Washington City Paper that he just started a “people program” at Pineapple and Pearls, which serves one of the priciest tasting menus in town, that calls for a 5 percent charge on checks to go toward a 401(k), paid time off, and counseling for mental health, substance abuse, and family issues.
Jacobson says implementing the change was paramount to making sure the business, which is nearly five months old, was doing everything it could to support its staff. Health coverage is rare in many restaurants, and an oversaturated dining market in D.C. means it’s difficult for owners to find and retain staff members.
For Jacobson and her partners, it was important to show customers how they were supporting the staff at Thamee and not shuffle the health care costs into food and drinks. She wants the restaurant to be a disruptor that helps mold the national conversation. She says Thamee already pays non-tipped employees $15 an hour, a dollar over the minimum wage. Thamee already has to deal with the stigma of prices people expect to pay for non-European food, she says, and hidden costs add up for employers.
She says the restaurant has hired cooks from D.C. Central Kitchen, the nonprofit that trains formerly homeless and unemployed people how to become professional cooks, and she doesn’t want to see those people leave for hotel jobs because those are the only employers that offer a sustainable career.
Jacobson expects to receive some resistance from customers about the new policy, but she’s not worried about losing business.
“Anyone who would push back against transformation may not want to eat at woman- and immigrant-owned businesses that are going to push for wellness for their team,” she says.
Correction 10/3/2019: Updated to clarify Thamee’s wages.