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NY Restaurant Workers Press Fight to Scrap Sub-Minimum Wage

November 17, 2020

By Steve Wishnia

“Elena the Essential Worker” stands defiant at Union Square this week. 

NEW YORK, N.Y.—In front of a towering cardboard cutout dubbed “Elena the Essential Worker”—a woman with long braids and an apron, flexing her biceps in a Rosie-the-Riveter pose—the One Fair Wage coalition launched a statewide campaign Nov. 16 to end New York State’s sub-minimum wage for tipped workers.

Food-service employees who receive tips currently have a $10-an-hour minimum wage in New York City, instead of the standard $15. They get $8.65 instead of $13 on Long Island and in Westchester County, and $7.85 instead of $11.80 upstate. 

They desperately need a raise, One Fair Wage says, because their tips are down 50-75% since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the city, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent executive order that restaurants close at 10 p.m. will worsen that.

“As we head into the colder months, it’s crucial that workers are getting $15,” Breanne Delgado, One Fair Wage’s digital organizing director, told LaborPress before a press conference in Union Square.

Two bills to eliminate the subminimum have been introduced in the state Legislature, but “restaurant workers can’t wait for a bill,” says Gemma Russo, One Fair Wage’s New York organizer. What the group wants, she says, is for Gov. Cuomo to expand the order he issued Dec. 31, 2019 to end the subminimum wage for tipped workers in “miscellaneous industries”—such as nail salons, car washes, and beauty parlors—to include restaurant and food-service workers.

The governor’s office did not respond by press time to a question from LaborPress about whether he would do that.

New York City in October began allowing restaurants to add a 10% surcharge to customers’ checks for the next 90 days to help cover costs and losses from the pandemic, but it does not require them to pay workers any more. One Fair Wage wants that superseded by legislation that would let them add the surcharge permanently—on the condition that they pay all workers the full minimum wage.

Lower East Side restaurant owner Ricky Dolinsky is backing the campaign, saying it would also “help remedy safety issues,” as workers could afford to take time off when they’re sick. 

Dolinsky, who co-owns the Russian-cuisine restaurant Tsarevna with his wife, also believes that eliminating the subminimum would make pay structures fairer in the industry. In lower-priced restaurants, he explains, it would ensure that servers make at least minimum wage, and in more expensive eateries where servers can get substantial tips, it would mean they could afford to share them with lower-paid “back of house” workers such as dishwashers and line cooks. 

“It’s a racial justice issue,” says Delgado. According to a report issued by One Fair Wage in July, black women servers in restaurants in New York State make almost $8 an hour less than white men do. It attributes the gap to customer racism and that white men are more likely to work in more expensive restaurants.  

One Fair Wage plans to take the campaign to Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo. Nationally, it’s doing similar campaigns in several other states, including Pennsylvania—where last year, as part of a compromise with the state legislature’s Republican majority to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9.50 in 2022, Gov. Tom Wolf agreed to keep the tipped-worker sub-minimum at $2.83.

November 17, 2020

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