standard Advocates Rally to Eliminate ‘Sub-Minimum Wage’

Only $5 per hour for fast food, car wash and other low-wage workers
Public Advocate Tish James spoke at the rally (via Twitter)

Public Advocate Tish James spoke at the rally (via Twitter)

Hundreds of tipped and low-wage workers and advocates, including fast food, car wash and other low-wage workers, rallied outside a Domino’s Pizza location in Harlem before marching to the second public hearing of Governor Cuomo’s Wage Board, where they testified and called on the Wage Board to eliminate the sub-minimum wage for the 229,000 tipped workers in New York State.

“In an increasingly unaffordable city, tipped workers remain among the lowest-paid hourly workers,” said New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, who joined the workers at the rally and wage board hearing.  “An hourly wage of $5 an hour is simply not sustainable for an individual or a family. Now is the time to ensure that low-wage workers receive a fair and sustainable income.  I join the many voices today calling on Governor Cuomo to help bring fair wages to these industries.”

Employers in New York are allowed to pay less than the minimum wage—just $5 an hour—to restaurant servers, delivery workers, and other service workers. Employers are legally required to “top off” a tipped worker’s pay when it falls short of the regular minimum wage, but lax enforcement enables employers to routinely violate minimum wage, overtime and other wage and hour laws with minimal repercussion.

“We work very hard and deserve a raise, just like other minimum wage workers in this state,” said Juana Tenesaca, a tipped worker and member of Make the Road New York. “I have worked as a waitress for years, earning the tipped minimum wage, and it’s impossible to raise my children never knowing how much money I’ll bring home at the end of the day. My daughter had to get a job while she was still in high school to help support our family and that breaks my heart.”

A July report by the National Employment Law Project finds that eliminating the sub-minimum wage would benefit an estimated 229,000 tipped workers in New York.  “Tipped workers are employed in industries like hospitality that are among the fastest growing in today’s economy,” said Tsedeye Gebreselassie, Senior Staff Attorney at the National Employment Law Project.  “If we want to stimulate consumer spending and boost our local economies, we need to make sure that the growing number of New Yorkers relying on these jobs actually have money to spend on basic necessities at their neighborhood stores.”

“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 Restaurant Opportunities Center-United. “The guest shouldn’t have to feel pressured at the end of the night to pay me a decent wage. If seven other states can require restaurant owners to pay their employees a full minimum wage, so can New York.”

As part of last year’s legislative deal to increase New York’s minimum wage to $9 an hour by December 31, 2015, the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers was set to automatically rise in proportion to the full minimum wage whenever the latter is raised with one exception: workers in the hospitality industry. The final deal froze these workers’ wages at $5 an hour and instructed Governor Cuomo’s Department of Labor to convene a “wage board” to determine whether these workers will get a raise, and if so, by how much.

“We call on Governor Cuomo and the wage board to do whatever it takes to lift up working families in the Empire State,” said Tony Perlstein, Campaigns Co-Director for the Center for Popular Democracy. “Wealthy restaurant employers shouldn’t receive special treatment that allows them to pay poverty wages to working New Yorkers, including the women who make up more than two-thirds of the tipped wage workforce. Seven states have already eliminated their sub-minimum wages, and more are seriously considering it. Their restaurant sectors are not suffering for it, and in fact are thriving.”

The wage board, consisting of 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, heard hours of testimony today detailing how New York’s tipped subminimum wage fuels unstable paychecks and poverty for thousands of workers, particularly women, across the state.

“People want to work hard at a place where they feel valued,” said Amado Rosa, a tipped worker at a Thai restaurant 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.”

The poverty rate among New York’s tipped workers is more than double that of the regular workforce. Seven states across the country have adopted policies requiring employers to pay tipped workers the full minimum wage and have shown that eliminating the sub-minimum wage reduces poverty without slowing job growth. In fact, according to projections by the National Restaurant Association in their 2014 Industry Forecast, all of the states that require employers to directly pay the full minimum wage to tipped workers are expected to have greater restaurant job growth than New York in the next decade – in most cases, much greater.  Tipped workers are already being paid $9 or more in California, Washington and Oregon, and will soon be getting raises to over $9 in Minnesota, Hawaii and Alaska.

“More than 3 million New Yorkers work low-wage jobs, and they need our state government officials on their side,” said Michael Kink of the Strong Economy for All Coalition. “New York needs a one-two punch for good jobs: a big increase in the minimum wage, and elimination of the second-class sub-minimum wage for tipped workers. This combination could boost the paychecks of millions of workers and help revive the New York economy from the ground up — the Wage Board should take direct action to provide one fair wage to a quarter-million tipped workers to get us moving now.”

Advocates who testified at today’s hearing are members of Raise Up NY, fighting for #1FairWage, a coalition comprised of tipped workers, the National Employment Law Project, Make the Road New York, the Center for Popular Democracy, Fast Food Forward, New York Labor-Religion Coalition, New York Communities for Change, ROC-NY, ROC-NY affiliate of Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, Strong for All, United New York, Citizen Action New York, Tompkins County Workers Center, Worker Center of Central New York, Metro Justice, Coalition for Economic Justice, Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse (ACTS) and other community groups and advocates around New York State calling for the elimination of New York’s sub-minimum wage for tipped workers.