October 22, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – If the governor's Wage Board soon decides to recommend scrapping New York’s sub-minimum wage for tipped workers, policy makers will have acknowledged that the antiquated system not only keeps workers in poverty – it also subjects mothers, daughters, sisters, wives and girlfriends to sexual harassment on the job, and must stop.
A large contingent of working women and men representing New York’s roughly 230,000 tipped workers delivered that sobering message to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Wage Board hearing held at the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building in Harlem this week.
“Having to live entirely off tips means the customer is always right, which means I've had to put up with unwanted advances and uncomfortable situations from guests," said Ashley Ogogor, a tipped worker and member of the Restaurant Opportunities Center [ROC-United].
Advocates for eliminating the state’s $5 an hour sub-minimum wage have long focused on the economic disparity inherent in the entrenched system, but now they hope that educating officials about the issue of sexual harassment as it relates to the sub-minimum wage, will finally lead to one fair minimum wage for all workers.
“When you’re dependent on customers to make up for your wages, you’re going to have to put up with a lot of things that might otherwise be extremely offensive and scary to you,” ROC-NY Co-Director Daisy Chung told LaborPress. “If somebody makes sexual comments to you or harasses you in some way, what real power do you have when you rely on them to help you pay your bills?”
Most of the tipped workers in New York State – some 70 percent – are women. Several states across the country have already eliminated the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers, and bills aimed and accomplishing the same goal are pending in 10 others.
“This is an issue of economic justice, and it’s also an issue of gender justice,” Chung said.
The state will convene a few more Wage Board Hearings before the end to the year when they present their findings to the governor. This week’s Wage Board hearing in Harlem included Timothy Grippen, retired Broome County executive, Heather C. Briccetti, president and CEO of the Business Council and Peter Ward, president of the New York Hotel Trade Council.
“People want to work hard at a place where they feel valued," said Amado Rosa, a tipped restaurant worker and a member of Make the Road New York. “Being paid $4 or $5 an hour does not make a worker feel validated and does not generate enough income to support a single person or a family. I have faced many hardships over the years, and my anxiety stemmed from not knowing what my take-home pay would be in a given week.”
Tsedeye Gebreselassie, senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project [NELP], dismissed the notion that workers earning tips end up making a good salary.
“It’s not true, Gebreselassie said prior to this week’s hearing. “The average wage in New York for a tipped worker is about $9 an hour. And that’s why tipped workers are twice as likely to live in poverty as the workforce as a whole.”
New York's miminum wage is set to increase to $9 an hour by the end of 2015 – but worker advocates insist that figure is unrealistic, and are pushing for a $15 an hour minimum wage.
A NELP report released this past summer found that scrapping the state's $5 an hour sub-minimum wage for tipped workers would go a long way to tacking New York’s enduing gender pay gap, where women earn just 83 cents for every dollar that men make.
"The guest shouldn't have to feel pressured at the end of the night to pay me a decent wage,” Ogogor added. “If seven other states can require restaurant owners to pay their employees a full minimum wage, so can New York.”
New York City Public Advocate Letitia James said that the time has, indeed, come to ensure that low-wage workers receive fair and sustainable incomes.
“In an increasingly unaffordable city, tipped workers remain among the lowest-paid hourly workers. An hourly income of $5/hour is simply not sustainable for an individual or a family,” Public Advocate Jame said.