Will New York Have One Fair Wage?

This post was written by Catherine Barnett, Director of Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY), as part of our PowHer the Vote 2017 campaign.

America loves dining out. In fact, the restaurant industry is among the fastest growing in the United States. However, for so many of us, going out to eat is a bittersweet experience. In all likelihood, our server is a woman working long hours to put food on our table, all the while struggling to put food on her own.

A common misconception about restaurant workers is that they are largely white men making lots of money at fine dining establishments. That could not be further from the truth. Seventy percent of restaurant workers are women. In all but 7 states, they make a lower, tipped minimum wage of as little as $2.13 per hour. In New York it is $7.50 per hour. Thus, they are forced to rely on tips—essentially the whims of customers—rather than a fair wage from their employers to make ends meet. As a result, they disproportionately experience poverty, discrimination, and sexual harassment at work.

Sexual harassment is particularly endemic in the restaurant industry. Last week, the Times Picayune released a bombshell report detailing the widespread culture of sexual harassment at Besh Restaurant Group, a company owned by celebrity chef, John Besh. Besh himself is the subject of many of the complaints. These revelations are appalling, but certainly not shocking. ROC-United’s 2014 report on sexual harassment in the restaurant industry found that over two-thirds of all women in the industry report harassment from employers, patrons, and fellow staff. Over half have feared for their safety at work. Since the very inception of ROC United, countless women have shared with us their harrowing experiences. Without question, the restaurant industry is facing a sexual harassment crisis.

Stunningly, the Trump Administration and the National Restaurant Association have partnered on a new regulation that will only exacerbate these conditions. The regulation will make tips the property of owners rather than workers, if the employer pays workers the full minimum wage. If it wasn’t hard enough to live off tips, the NRA wants to take those, too. This will make it even harder for women who work in the restaurant industry to protect themselves against harassment. It is critical that Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta halt the NRA’s dangerous agenda. Click here to send a letter to Secretary Acosta demanding he block the NRA’s plans to steal workers’ tips.

However, that is not enough. In 2018, New York’s minimum wage is set to go up to $15.00 per hour, yet tipped workers will remain frozen at 67 percent of the regular wage. We must do away with the subminimum wage system once and for all, and establish one fair, living wage for all workers. One Fair Wage will provide women in the restaurant industry with the stability they need to provide for themselves, and to advocate for themselves against harassment.

The One Fair Wage movement is growing every day. One Fair Wage ballot initiatives in Washington, DC and Michigan are garnering widespread support. A bill to create One Fair Wage has been introduced in both houses of the New York State Legislature (by sponsors Senator Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Member Jaffee). Governor Cuomo, however, has the power to eliminate the tipped minimum wage without legislative approval. Thankfully, Alphonso David, a top aide and chief counsel to Governor Cuomo, recently announced the Governor’s support for eliminating the subminimum wage in New York. If established, New York would become the first One Fair Wage state on the East Coast. It is critical that we use our voices to let our elected officials know that America is ready for One Fair Wage.

Click here to learn more about the movement for One Fair Wage. Join us as we forge a restaurant industry free of sexual harassment, and where all workers receive fair wages and workplace conditions.