NEW YORK—The New York Wage Board held a hearing on whether to raise the minimum wage for tipped workers Monday, listening to testimonies from a multitude of service workers and business owners alike.
The state’s Department of Labor convened a Wage Board in July on orders from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who had made promises to raise the tip workers’ minimum wage in 2013.
The current minimum wage is $5 per hour for tipped service workers in the restaurant industry. Employers are required to make sure that workers receive at least $8 per hour after tip, but labor advocates complain of lax enforcement from the state’s Department of Labor.
At the hearing, pro-wage hike advocates offered their main arguments: living costs were rising faster than wages, employers often shirked paying what tipped workers were owed, and some customers didn’t tip.
“We get a lot of tourists, sometimes they don’t leave any tips, so we get hit from the owner by not increasing our salary and we still get $5 for so long,” said Hamdy Elamrousy, a server at Gallagher’s Steakhouse, before the hearing.
The sheer length of the hearing—five and a half hours—allowed for the airing of problems faced by service workers that are not commonly explored.
Ashley Ogogor, who has waited tables at nightlife establishments, said that female waiters often endured harassment from customers lest they lose out on their tip.
“Having to live entirely off tips means that the customer is always right, which means I’ve had to put up with unwanted advancements and uncomfortable situations from guests,” she said. “In several establishments the uniform is not the same for men and women. Women are made to wear more revealing outfits while the men are able to wear pants and T-shirts.”
Many restaurant owners in Chinatown pay waiters the full minimum wage and keep all the tips for themselves, said Chang Da Zou, who has waited tables for 10 years.
The Restaurant’s Perspective
Representatives from the restaurant industry proposed an alternative to raising the minimum wage for tipped workers: freeze the tipped minimum wage for workers already making a living wage and raise the base pay for those who don’t make $8 an hour after tip.
Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, said that most service workers made well above the minimum wage, referring to an internal survey of 15,000 workers in over 500 establishments.
“Servers earned an average of $25.34 [per hour], bartenders $27.48, bussers and runners, $17.11, cocktail workers, $31.20,” he said.
Rigie also warned that a wage hike could force businesses to adopt a European-style “service charge” in place of tips, which could result in lower average wages for workers.
Other testimonies from Alliance argued that higher labor costs would push businesses to cut back on workers and switch to automated solutions.
“When was the last time anyone saw more than one cashier at a CVS? You don’t because you’re at the self-checkout lane,” said Jeffrey Bank, president of the Hospitality Alliance.
Not every service worker supported a wage hike. Jay Holland works at the New York State Restaurant Association, but held a variety of jobs ranging from cook to operating a waffle cone booth—his first job at age 14.
“I was able to work flexible hours so I could attend both high school and college while making enough money to provide basic living expenses without taking out more student loans. Not only did I get experience in the kitchen, but I also learned sales and service through customer interactions. I also learned how to build a resume, how to interview, and settle work disputes,” he said.
Holland worked most of his 9 years in the industry as a “back-of-the-house” worker—cook, dishwasher, and busser—who got paid less than servers.
“Sometimes servers make more than management,” Holland said. “My main concern is that increasing the cost of labor for front-of-the-house staff will leave less money for back-of-the-house people.”
Robert Bookman, a legal counsel for the Hospitality Alliance, said that the Wage Board wasn’t the proper place to address the issue of wage theft.
“If there are some bad apples that are violating the law by not making sure tipped workers are at least making the minimum wage, there should be enforcement against those employers,” he said. “If they’re cheating at $5 an hour, they’ll cheat at $8 an hour.”