When Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the $15 minimum hourly wage into law in 2016, he said the higher wages would "restore fairness and decency" in New York State. Drawing on quotes from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he said full-time wages should add up to a "decent living."
"[The] truth is, at $9 an hour, you can’t afford to raise a family in New York," he said during a press conference at the time.
But nearly four years later, a coalition of workers' and women's rights organizations believe that the Cuomo administration is keeping some 300,000 restaurant workers from earning a $15 hourly wage under a tipped wage system that the groups say leave workers susceptible to sexual harassment and other coercive behavior.
Under Governor Andrew Cuomo's current wage increase strategy, some 70,000 tipped workers, from nail technicians to car washers, will see their wages rise to $15 an hour by the end of 2020. The plan eliminates, for those workers, a two-tiered system that allows for tipped workers to make less than the standard minimum wage, with the remainder of their income being made up for in tips. But a coalition of groups, led by the One Fair Wage campaign, is outraged restaurant workers are not part of the change.
"We were surprised that [Cuomo] left us out and furious," said Nikki Cole, the national policy campaign director for One Fair Wage.
Advocates insist the two-tiered system for restaurant workers exacerbates sexual harassment in the industry—where former restaurant workers say they've felt forced to put up with inappropriate behavior from customers in order to ensure they would still get tipped.
"Customers often have biases against you—often expect you to fulfill some sort of role that is often inappropriate, expect you to tolerate behavior such as lewd comments, inappropriate touching," said Gemma Rossi, a 15-year veteran in the restaurant industry who now works as a labor organizer for One Fair Wage. "All of these are things that, when you work for a subminimum wage and your income is essentially solely reliant on tips, you're forced to put up with unfortunately."
Dozens rallied outside of Cuomo's Manhattan office Monday afternoon for the increased minimum wage. Currently, food service workers in New York City make $10 an hour, with the remaining $5 paid for in tips. If the tips don't add up to the minimum wage, employers are supposed to pay the difference for employees to meet the $15 minimum hourly wage, but advocates have noted this leaves workers vulnerable to wage-theft. Organizations such as One Fair Wage, Make the Road New York, New York Civil Liberties Union and others penned a letter to Cuomo, pointing out how keeping restaurant workers out of the wage increase disproportionately affects women—since some 70 percent of workers are women.
Some 90 percent of women report sexual harassment, and 70 percent of men do as well, according to a report by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, which started the One Fair Wage campaign in 2013. (The campaign is now a separate entity and has expanded its focus beyond restaurant workers and is funded by the Alliance for a Just Society, a spokesperson said.)
"When I worked in a Michelin Star restaurant, I would have some customers who would ask me to sit on their lap. I would have male co-workers, who were also my superiors, who would flirt or try to get me to sleep with them," said Carmen LoBue, now an actress and member of Time's Up, a movement against sexual misconduct in Hollywood formed in the wake of sexual harassment accusations against disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein.
"If I was getting paid more per hour, I might not really accept or I might shut down someone who is hitting on me constantly when I'm bringing them something to eat or something to drink," LoBue recalled.
Getting rid of the subminimum wage "eliminates the amount of pressure that you're working under and it eliminates the chances of people harassing you," LoBue said.
Restaurant workers group Restaurant Workers of America have argued otherwise; the group fought against the elimination of the subminimum wage in the restaurant industry, arguing it would lead to lower overall wages and make it more difficult for businesses to stay open. The group, which has been criticized for its ties to conservatives and unclear funding sources, applauded Cuomo when he left off the restaurant industry from the New Year's Eve announcement, calling One Fair Wage "paid actors."
At Monday's rally, RWA co-founder Jennifer Schellenberg handed out fliers noting that ROC United oversaw a Lower East Side restaurant that paid its employees fair wages had closed shortly after re-opening.
Rossi, of One Fair Wage, pointed to the seven states that already have the single wage structure.
"Using one non-profit restaurant as an example for an entire industry is just not an adequate representation," she said. "What can speak to an entire industry are those seven states that already passed One Fair Wage bills."
When Cuomo announced the increased wages for some tipped workers on December 31st, he called the tip system often "needlessly complicated, allowing unscrupulous businesses to flout or nation-leading minimum wage laws and robbing workers of the paycheck they earned." A Department of Labor report had found the tipping system disproportionately impacts women, minorities and immigrants.
On Monday, his office did not respond to requests for comment on the rally.
The state's Department of Labor said that public hearings found a majority of people who testified in 2018 were against eliminating the minimum wage tip credit. (Those giving testimony described themselves as "working within the hospitality industry," according to the DOL, though in what capacity is unclear.)
The department did acknowledge that the public hearing and comment process "did uncover some issues that require more study in the future," but did not provide further details.
Additional reporting by Autumn Harris/WNYC
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to state that ROC United started the One Fair Wage campaign in 2013, but the coalition is now a separate entity.