Law and Politics

Raw Deal: Why Restaurant Workers Are Counting On The New Mayor

December 5, 2013
By Joe Maniscalco

Restaurant workers are still fighting for paid sick days.

Restaurant workers are still fighting for paid sick days.

New York, NY – Hard-pressed restaurant workers who were shafted last spring when the City Council, under the leadership of outgoing Speaker Christine Quinn backed a paid sick days bill that largely left them in the lurch should they fall ill, are hoping that progressive lawmakers working with the Bill de Blasio administration will truly bring about a "New Day" for waiters, waitresses and others still toiling unprotected in kitchens throughout the city.

"[The bill] was just another way for restaurants to get away without paying us," Carolina Portillo recently told LaborPress. "We don't have the same rights as other workers."

Portilla – a member of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York [ROC], and a career server who works at a Midtown Latin/fusion restaurant – is talking about the "shift-swap" provision contained in the recently passed sick days legislation that exempts employers from paying employees sick days should those employees later in the week opt to pick up an extra shift from a co-worker. 

"All restaurant workers work on shifts," says Rahul Saksena, policy director for ROC. "The shift-swapping provision makes them choose between taking an extra shift or a sick day."

Worker advocates say that picking up an extra shift is no reason to deny workers the right to be paid for a sick day – and that all workers deserve paid sick days in addition to being paid for every hour they work. 

"We were excited about the [paid sick days bill], but it made no difference in guaranteeing our rights," says Kevin Park, a server who works at a Mexican Restaurant in Long Island City, Queens. 

Many still have to choose between calling in sick or losing money.

Many still have to choose between calling in sick or losing money.

At $5 and hour, restaurant workers in New York City already earn far less than the minimum wage when excluding tips.

As a result, many hard-working people must still rely on food stamps just to survive. 

According to the Hunger Action Network, almost twice as many tip workers resort to using food stamps as compared to the rest of the national workforce. Poverty amongst the families of tip workers also runs three times as high as the rest of the workforce taken as a whole.

ROC, along with the Hunger Action Network and other groups, is pushing hard for New York State to follow in the footsteps of California, Alaska, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington in moving away from sub-minimum wages for tip workers. 

On Black Friday, Mark Dunlea, Hunger Action Network of NYS executive director, criticized Governor Andrew Cuomo, and urged him to "stand up for low-income workers in New York State" by convening a minimum wage board to raise the minimum wage for tip workers in the food industry. 

"Too often Cuomo sacrifices the needs of workers in his effort to appear business friendly," Dunlea said. "Cuomo needs to understand that companies can make a profit and still pay their workers a fair wage."

Saksena blames the plight of restaurant workers at least partly on the Restaurant Association and the powerful influence the lobby group exerts on elected officials. 

"The public doesn't realize that servers make less than the minimum wage, and that what you're doing is subsidizing the employer," Saksena says. 

The fight continues for restaurant workers.

The fight continues for restaurant workers.

Some are also under a misconception about who restaurant workers really are – believing that most servers are either students or out-of-work actors, and therefore expected to somehow get by on sub-poverty wages. Industry insiders, however, say this is simply not the case, with most servers actually being career professionals. 

Figures cited by the National Hunger Network identify the overwhelming majority of tip workers – 88-percent –  as being over 20-years old. Seventy-two percent are female. 

Despite efforts by powerful lobbying groups, ROC – an organization initially formed to help displaced Windows on the World workers following 9/11 – has found that at least some small restaurant owners in New York City understand that keeping employees healthy and happy actually improves their bottom line. Some are even ROC members. 

Now, the advocacy group is counting on Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio and progressives in the City Council to expand the significantly watered down version of the paid sick days bill that was concocted last March. And this time, they want to see manufacturing workers included, carve-outs for certain businesses eliminated and the shift-swap provision finally junked. 

"I think the time is right," Saksena says. "People are beginning to realize that something needs to change." 

December 5, 2013

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