Gov. Andrew Cuomo
We represent a coalition of servers, bussers, cooks, and other restaurant workers from across the country who have come together to lead the growing national movement for just, livable wages in the nation’s restaurant industry.
America’s two-tiered wage system ensures tipped workers spend long hours putting food on the tables of others, while barely being able to put food on our own. As workers who earn tips, we’re paid a separate, lower minimum wage that starts at $2.13 an hour at the federal level — a rate that hasn’t changed since 1991.
In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour is commendable. But what about the state’s hundreds of thousands of tipped workers — overwhelmingly people of color and women — that continue to suffer under the yolk of a separate and unequal subminimum wage? We urge the New York State Assembly, Senate, and Governor Cuomo to eliminate the subminimum wage and establish One Fair Wage for all workers.
The prevailing myth is tipped workers are largely white men in their thirties, working at fine dining establishments, earning nearly six figures for their efforts. In reality, 53 percent of us are people of color, 21 percent living at or below the poverty line. Nearly 70% of tipped restaurant workers are women, 40% of whom are mothers, working in casual dining establishments. The sub-minimum wage system perpetuates a gender pay gap that disproportionately impacts Black women servers, who earn only 60% of what male servers overall are paid, costing them more than $400,000 over a lifetime.
The impact of this struggle on our ability to provide for ourselves and our families is profound. As tipped workers, essentially beholden to the generosity of strangers to make ends meet, we’re oftentimes unable to provide valid proof of income for human necessities, such as a rental lease, a car, or a line of credit. In essence, tipped workers in New York state and nationwide are made sub-citizens by this unfair system.
And this says nothing of the rampant sexual harassment and discrimination far too many of our sisters in the industry suffer at the hands of customers, employers, and fellow employees. The restaurant industry is the single largest source of sexual harassment claims in the U.S. Although 7% of American women work in the restaurant industry, it is responsible for 37% of all sexual harassment claims to the EEOC. The tipped minimum wage, combined with the practice of tipping, forces female servers to tolerate inappropriate and degrading behavior from customers, coworkers and managers in order to make a living.
The unfair burden people of color bear under America’s subminimum wage should come as no surprise; it’s rooted in slavery and racism. As Saru Jayaraman, the Co-Director of our organization, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, examines in her new book Forked: A New Standard for American Dining, post-slavery America actually viewed tipping as a demeaning practice fit only for former slaves, whom business owners resented having to pay in the first place.
Nearly two hundred years later, that rationale — that it is acceptable for tipped workers to rely on customers rather than their employers for a living wage — continues to persist, aided and abetted by the lobbying efforts of powerful restaurant industry giants like the National Restaurant Association. It’s about time we end this despicable legacy in New York once and for all.
The seven states, including California and the entire West Coast, that have already eliminated the sub-minimum wage account for over one million tipped workers, and they are watching their restaurant industries flourish. We know from our brothers and sisters in California that they get paid the full minimum wage from their employer and still get tips on top of that; jobs aren’t going away in California, and neither are tips. In fact, California has seen comparable and even higher rates of tipping since eliminating the sub-minimum wage. Poverty rates have gone down, and wage gaps for women have been reduced. New York is ready for One Fair Wage.
Governor Cuomo, we are professionals, and we deserve to be compensated accordingly. We need your leadership and the support of New York legislators statewide to ensure the state’s women and workers of color receive the dignity, respect, and compensation they deserve.
Dr. King also said, ‘What good does it do to be able to eat at a lunch counter if you can’t buy a hamburger?’ Without One Fair Wage, It doesn’t do much good to work there, either.
Authors: Shanita Thomas, NY, server, 11 years and Jorge Jimenez, CA, server, 10 years