Groups target sub-minimum wage for tipped restaurant workers


In New York, restaurants do not have to pay tipped workers the full $8 an hour minimum wage. Instead, they can pay a much lower base rate — somewhere between $4.90 and $5.65 an hour depending on the job and the employer — but the employer has to make up the difference if the worker's base wage plus tips fall short of the state's minimum wage.

A coalition of groups, including Metro Justice, want to put an end to that practice. They made their case at a press conference this morning at First Unitarian Church.

Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said that women constitute two-thirds of minimum wage workers nationwide and 60 percent of tipped workers. Often, they don't get health care through their employers, she said, and these women often care for children or elderly family members. And the unpredictable nature of their schedules makes it tough for them to get a second job. She characterizes the sub-minimum wage as a legal form of wage discrimination.

"This inequality, this gross injustice, follows women workers all the way through to their retirement," O'Neill said.

The wage presents another problem for women by making them dependent on customers to essentially pay their wages, said Saru Jayaraman, co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a national restaurant workers advocacy organization. Workers may feel like they have to put up with unwanted, inappropriate behavior from customers, including sexual harassment, just to make a living, Jayaraman said. 

Earlier today, ROC-United released a report on sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. Restaurant workers in a variety jobs, including women, men, and transgender individuals, experience sexual harassment at high rates, the report says.

"It is critical to contextualize the concept of ‘living with’ sexual harassment in the workplace as something different than consent," says the report's summary. "Our survey and focus group results show that most workers either ignore or put up with harassing behaviors because they fear they will be penalized through loss of income from tips, unfavorable shifts, public humiliation, or even job loss."

State Senator Ted O'Brien spoke in favor of a minimum wage increase and after the press conference said that he agrees that New York needs to address the sub-minimum wage. He said that he hasn't sorted through whether the base wage should be raised or if the tipped wage should be eliminated entirely. 

[UPDATED October 8] The Tips Work Coalition, a restaurant industry organization that advocates for tipped wages, sent this response to the original post: 

“By law, all workers, tipped or not, are guaranteed the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, or the state minimum wage, whichever is higher. Most restaurant servers make well over the minimum wage. In fact, nationally, Coalition restaurant servers earn an hourly average wage between $16.00-$22.00. But if on a rare occasion they do not, their employer is required by law to make up the difference to the minimum wage.”

This post has been corrected.