The restaurant industry has been crushed by COVID-19. Indoor dining was pushed off the Phase 4 reopening plan this summer, and it remains unclear when restaurants may be able to open their indoor spaces to customers again. So the dining establishments that have not fully shut down during the pandemic, or closed for good, are solely relying on takeout, delivery and outdoor service, and even that is not enough for many. The outdoor dining component itself has been a headache for restaurant owners — part of the city's Open Streets and Open Restaurants Plan, some have called out for lacking vision and ambition, and over the months it has come with quickly changing guidelines.

The pandemic has also further exposed other issues within the industry, and in an effort to not only help restaurants while they operate in this purgatory, but fix these long-sustaining problems, on Thursday fifty local restaurant owners and 200 workers proposed a "Safe and Just Reopening Plan," an effort that includes Tom Colicchio, David Chang, and Danny Meyer.

"The plan will center around four pillars that both employers and employees agree are needed to create a more equitable restaurant industry coming out of COVID," their press release read. Those pillars are:

  • Elimination of the subminimum tipped wage for all New Yorkers, which contributes to racial pay inequality
  • Allowance of tip sharing with back-of-house and kitchen staff, which is legal elsewhere but not in New York
  • Payroll tax relief for struggling restaurants
  • Establishment of a 5% safe reopening surcharge that restaurants can charge

Their letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo read, in part, "The restaurant industry needs immediate relief, and needs to address long-standing racial inequities in our industry at the same time. We, the undersigned restaurant owners and hospitality professionals, agree that our industry is in desperate need of economic support: to recover, to reopen, and to reimagine a future in which our team members are all paid a full minimum wage plus tips. To survive this crisis and thrive, we recommend a relief package that ensures a strong restaurant industry recovery: tip-sharing; a modest recovery surcharge for restaurants that follow a gold-standard of virus-related precautions; payroll tax relief; and the elimination of the subminimum wage."

The elimination of the subminimum wage addresses a labor law that allows owners to pay tipped workers $5 under NYC's minimum wage of $15/hr. Last year, Gov. Cuomo eliminated tipped minimum wage for everyone but restaurant workers.

The proposal notes that "many New York restaurant employers are prepared to move to a full minimum wage if tip sharing becomes permissible—along with a recovery surcharge, and modest tax relief only applicable to increased wages."

They are asking the government to work with hospitality professionals and workers who are facing insecure economic futures, housing destabilization, and debt. "Being forced to rely solely on tips, creates a system that encourages rampant sexual harassment of women, reinforces a wide delta of inequity of race, mass disenfranchisement of immigrants, people of color and working poor," the letter reads. "With tips vastly down in this climate already, it’s clear that having to rely on tips alone could never be sustainable."

One Fair Wage's president Saru Jayaraman — who has also helped with the city's own Restaurant Revitalization Program — was also on hand today, declaring the proposed plan to be "truly historic," and pointing to the longterm problem with subminimum wage for tipped workers. "[It] was designed to oppress Black people in the 1800s and it is still creating a system of poverty and oppression because of the racism that exists in this country today. We celebrate employers who want to move away from this legacy of slavery and toward a more safe and just reopening that includes relief for both workers and employers, and a more resilient, equitable industry for all."

We have reached out to Governor Cuomo's office for comment on the proposal, and will update if we hear back.