New York City’s restaurants are in for an arduous winter. In response to rapidly rising COVID-19 infection rates, Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) imposed a 10 p.m. curfew for all public facilities – including restaurants. Furthermore, if infection rates continue to rise, the City may have no choice but to close indoor and outdoor dining and force restaurants to switch to takeout and delivery only.
As such, members of the One Fair Wage (OFW) initiative saw no better time than now to reiterate their long-standing demand for New York to pay restaurant workers living wages.
“Tipped workers right now are making $10.50 an hour,” said OFW Digital Organizing Director Breanne Delgado. “We cannot survive off of that during the pandemic. Right now, service workers are literally starving because they cannot afford to eat.”
The activists of OFW delivered their message in the middle of Union Square yesterday, at 12 p.m. For about an hour, they announced their demands, conversed with the public and handed out free cans of soup to passersby. Their rally kicked off the beginning of what will be a statewide tour across New York.
Delgado and her allies are demanding, in short, a $15 per hour minimum wage for all essential restaurant workers, in addition to tips. It’s a demand that One Fair Wage has been making for years; since long before the pandemic, servers have relied heavily on tips to make ends meet, leaving their livelihoods at the mercy of their customers’ whims.
“As far as I know, this is a decade-long battle at this point,” said OFW Lead Organizer Gemma Rossi. “It’s such an issue for tipped workers to not receive full minimum wage. It’s something we were repeatedly dealing with, whether in terms of wage theft from specific owners, or just across the board.”
At the end of 2019, Cuomo’s State Department of Labor issued an order eliminating the sub-minimum wage for over 70,000 tipped employees statewide. The order accommodated a multitude of workers, including hairdressers, door-persons, tow truck drivers and parking attendants… but not restaurant workers.
“We are the largest sector of tipped workers in the state,” said Rossi. “While we’re very happy for everyone else in the coalition, our fight has had to continue.”
But the pandemic has infused their demand with a new sense of urgency, as restaurant workers’ reliance on tips puts them in an even more precarious position. Now, servers must collect tips from the very same customers that they’re supposed to minimize physical contact with. The simple act of collecting their pay puts their health at risk.
The situation gets even worse when you factor in gender-based harassment. Since the pandemic began, female servers have reported countless incidents of patrons asking them to pull their masks down to show their faces. Some patrons have even threatened to tip less if the servers don’t comply with the request.
“Women are reporting sexual harassment on the rise right now,” said Delgado. “Men telling women to take their masks down to see how they look, so they know how much to tip them. Women are literally asked, right now, to put their lives in danger, their health at risk, to appease the desire of patrons. Nobody should have to deal with this at work, especially during a pandemic.”
Delgado also brought up the racial aspect of the issue. While the sub-minimum wage hurts servers of all stripes, it disproportionately affects servers of color. According to a July report from OFW, tipped workers of color are 65 percent more likely to live in poverty, compared to their white counterparts.
“Black women, especially, are making about $9 an hour less in tips than their white male counterparts,” said Delgado. “Governor Cuomo, if you care about racial justice in New York City, if you care about the health and safety of one of the largest workforces in this city, you will eliminate sub-minimum wage.”
Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen) has hinted that a bill codifying minimum wage for restaurant workers may be introduced at this month’s City Council meeting. But Delgado isn’t going to sit back and take his word for it – not when the livelihoods of her peers are at stake.