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What’s Standing in the Way of One Fair Wage in New York?

Guest post by Yarmila Ruiz, National High Road Director, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United

The restaurant industry as a whole is the largest and fastest growing industry in our economy. It is also, sadly, the industry with the lowest paying jobs—especially tipped worker occupations. The massive growth of our generally low-wage workforce is one of the reasons why more and more legislators in Washington and Albany are listening to our concerns. In the past two years, we’ve seen important legislative progress at both the federal and state levels, but restaurant workers will need to raise our voices even louder in the coming year to get One Fair Wage legislation passed.

Wage and Gender Issues Are Intertwined

Tipped workers, which also includes other industries such as nail salon workers, car wash workers, some beauty salons and airport wheelchair attendants, represent 7 in 10 of the lowest paying jobs. Our research has shown that most tipped workers are, in fact, women working in casual restaurants such as diners, cafes, family-style establishments and large chain restaurants, not the fine dining servers working in Midtown Manhattan that may come to mind. Tipped workers also suffer from three times the poverty rate as the rest of the U.S. workforce and have the highest rates of sexual harassment because they often have to tolerate inappropriate customer behavior in order to earn their tips. When the majority of your wage is dependent on tips, you often put up with whatever a customer or coworker does or says in order to get through your shift and be able to leave with your hard-earned tips. 

In my case, I was 22 when I was sexually assaulted at work. I was working as a server in an upscale Italian restaurant, a job I had worked hard to get. When I started there, I had a manger tell me I didn’t necessarily fit the “look” of the restaurant, meaning I wasn’t a white male in his 50’s who was considered a “career” server. But I dedicated myself to learning the menu, researching the ingredients, studying the wine list and immersing myself in learning from the other servers who had been there for decades. Like many first generation immigrant kids, I had no money for college and was piecing together three jobs to try to come up with tuition and cost of living.

It was a particularly busy weekend night, mid-service and I was in the weeds. I was polishing wine glasses and a co-worker brushed by me and instead of yelling ‘behind,’ he full on grabbed me from behind and forced his hands up my pants. It wasn’t until years later, until I got involved with ROC that I was able to realize and identify that this was sexual assault, and that I had been putting up with various forms of this behavior since I was a 15-years-old hostess working at another “family style” restaurant. That night, I went downstairs, locked myself in a bathroom stall, tried to figure out what to do, and suddenly realized that I had a six-top that still hadn’t gotten their dessert menus. So I wiped my tears and went upstairs with every intention of finishing my shift. I knew I couldn’t say anything because we were slammed, and I needed the help of this particular coworker, the backwaiter assigned to my section, if I wanted to finish service and walk away with any decent tips for that night, which would go toward my rent.

Fast forward a few years later and I was introduced to ROC United. ROC’s mission is to improve wages and working conditions for the nation’s restaurant workforce. We are thousands of people who work in restaurants, over 780 high-road employers, and thousands of engaged consumers united for raising restaurant industry standards.

Since working with ROC, I know now that my experience, sadly, is not unique to me or my situation at the time. This is a system that was constructed to keep women, and particularly women of color dependent on tips for a majority of their income because it’s less money that has to come out of the owners’ operating budgets. Look, I get it. I know from working in my role as ROC’s High Road Director, where I talk to employers every day, that restaurant ownership is particularly difficult. The profit margins are tighter than almost any other industry, the competition is grueling, and it’s difficult to keep things afloat. However, this doesn’t have to come at the expense of workers.

Victory in the U.S. House; Stalled in the Senate

On July 18, the House of Representatives passed the Raise the Wage Act. In a time of growing economic insecurity for many Americans, this passage signals a monumental shift in how we value low-wage work in America. The Raise the Wage Act, which passed with a 231-199 vote, will gradually raise wages for all Americans to $15 an hour by 2025, with further indexes to coincide with overall wage growth. The last time Congress raised the federal minimum wage was to $7.25, nearly 10 years ago.

The Raise the Wage act will also phase out the lower minimum wage for tipped workers. This is of particular significance to the restaurant industry, which has long utilized the subminimum wage, otherwise known as the “tip credit” to subsidize worker’s wages—primarily servers, bartenders, bussers, bar backs, food runners, hostesses and other front-of-house staff.

Unfortunately, this important legislation isn’t going anywhere in the U.S. Senate given its current leadership. ROC United will continue to fight for this federal legislation and gin up national conversation over this immensely important year when labor issues will be front and center in election debates. But we are also continuing our advocacy for progress in states like New York.

New York: So Close, But So Far?

There are seven states that have One Fair Wage, including California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska, Montana and Minnesota. These states have higher job growth per capita in the restaurant industry, higher rates of tipping than in New York City, and one half the rate of instances of sexual harassment. We launched the One Fair Wage campaign in 2013 to encourage all states to follow California and the six other states where this system is currently in effect. Since then, 20 states have introduced legislation to make One Fair Wage the law, including New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and Pennsylvania.

Thanks to the tremendous momentum and energy that arose out of the #MeToo movement, Governor Cuomo said he would make New York the eighth state to adopt One Fair Wage in order to address the issue of sexual harassment and level the playing field for all workers. Last year, he held hearings across New York state to hear from tipped workers, owners and consumers about their experiences. The latest we’ve heard is that he is waiting on the Department of Labor to finalize their recommendation, but those hearings concluded on June 27, 2018, nearly 14 months ago. The Governor actually has the Executive Authority to make this the law in New York, so while the legislation is moving through the NYS Assembly, it’s actually not necessary, as he can do it on his own. Tipped workers can’t wait any longer, New York should lead the nation and advance policies that eliminate this outdated and oppressive two-tiered wage system once and for all.

There is a group of NYC employers who have come together and are now calling on the Governor to compromise -- to implement One Fair Wage plus tip sharing -- which is currently illegal in New York State. In California, this is common practice, the ability to share tips with kitchen workers in order to bridge the significant pay disparity between front and back-of-house. We know that tipped workers do better, the back of house does better, and employers do better when the tip pool includes all of a restaurant’s team members.

Leaders in Washington and Albany only act when enough people demand change. With the growing acknowledgement of the importance of the hospitality industry to the U.S. economy, restaurant workers can now use their voices to demand policy changes that significantly improve wages and working conditions. If you or your restaurant would like to get involved, please get in touch with us to join our movement for better wages and better tips!

To learn more about ROC United, email Yamila Ruiz at yamila@rocunited.org

John deBary