Photos by Kiki Vassilakis
Following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to eliminate the minimum wage tip credit late last year, debates ensued as the proposal became wrapped up in the #MeToo movement.
The proposal would force employers to pay full minimum wage to tipped workers instead of the lower wage allowed by most states and federal law (as long as the employee earns the full minimum wage amount via tips). “Tip credit” refers to the difference between the full minimum wage and the tipped wage.
“No one is asking for it,” Llona Hogan, a longtime server and catering director at Hattie’s Restaurant in Saratoga Springs, told The Alt.
Saru Jayaraman, president of the Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC) United & ROC Action and director of the Food Labor Research Center, begs to differ.
The governor cited a 2014 report by ROC United–the activist organization that began as a relief center after 9/11–in his written State of the State proposal, arguing that dependence on tips disproportionately burdens women and people of color, who are reported to be tipped less than their white coworkers. Female workers, the report found–who make up 70 percent of serving positions in the restaurant industry and 60 percent of all tipped occupations–are susceptible to frequent sexual harassment from employers that may affect their shift scheduling and/or customers that may affect their tip amount.
“We’ve been organizing and pushing New York on this for years, we’ve been talking to Cuomo about this for years,” Jayaraman said. “70 percent of servers are women. They suffer from a higher amount of sexual harassment that our research shows is connected to tips.”
Jayaraman said she believes ROC United has contributed to this latest push related to the governor’s proposal directly because of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, referencing her recent appearances on 20/20, Real Time with Bill Maher and the 2018 Golden Globes with Amy Poehler.
Recent media reports have also taken a closer look at the relation between female servers (or other “front of house” workers like hostesses, bussers and bartenders) and their coworkers, superiors and customers in recent months, finding in many cases that sexual harassment is a rampant issue—as it has been similarly reported in industries such as technology, politics, entertainment and academia.
When it comes to linking the issue with the elimination of tip credit, Jenna Hahne of The Ruck in Troy says enduring harassment due to a dependence on tips has not been a reality in her 15 years of service work.
“I’m insulted by the way this is being tilted in the direction of the #MeToo movement because #MeToo is so huge and important and incredible. This has nothing to do with that and it’s insulting to wrap this whole thing in a desperate attempt to get more tax money,” she said.
“If I lose one tip because someone is being gross, I’m good. I don’t need your six bucks because you are a part of that cyclical situation. I’ll move on to my next table that could overhear you and they’re gonna be like, ‘Here’s more money because that guy’s an asshole,’” she adds. “It’s mind blowing that they think, in this day and age, it’s acceptable to wrap this life changing [proposal] in that and expect for people to go, ‘Oh, it must be so hard for those poor women servers out there. Those poor girls, whatever will they do?’”
Jayaraman said that the harassment issues have been deeply rooted in customs of the restaurant industry and continues to victimize female service workers.
“Managers are telling workers to go out and get it,” she said. “Show more cleavage, wear less, go out and sell themselves.”
Jayaraman has also taken note of California’s practice of sharing tips with kitchen staff, which she says could combat in-house harassment between co-workers in other states like New York.
“I’ve heard stories from servers who say, ‘The kitchen staff makes me kiss them or show them my breasts to get the meal for my table.’ It’s because they know they depend on the tips.”
Servers like Hogan and Hahne, each with over a decade of service work under their belts, argue that in any establishment they have worked so far in their career, the support from their manager or other superior has been priority number one.
“I’ve never worked in a place where the owner did not have my back and did not support me handling that in any way that I saw fit. Including kicking [customers] out of the restaurant, which I have done,” Hogan said. “Somebody’s $10, $20 or even $50 tip is not going to make or break my life. There is no pressure on myself to endure something like that for a few bucks and no threat of losing my job.”
“If that’s not the response you’re getting from your superior, then there needs to be other questions about what’s going on,” Hahne said.
With the rising opposition behind #saveourindustry—gathering servers across the state in Facebook groups like the more than 13,000 member “Supporters of the Tip Credit NY”—the relation between tipping and sexual harassment has become a polarizing issue, with organizations like ROC United and the Restaurant Workers of America (RWA) pointing fingers and working to debunk one another’s datasets or testimonials.
“In regards to sexual harassment, it’s clear that this is a cultural issue,” RWA board member Joshua Chaisson told The Alt. “The idea that [harassers] would come into a restaurant and say, ‘You get paid a minimum wage now, I won’t harass you,’ is absurd.”
Jayaraman said that while the opposition to Cuomo’s proposal has been vocal, they are in the minority and that the majority of service workers are looking for a raise. “They’re women who work in casual restaurants and struggle with this day to day.”
Servers like Hogan, who has been one of the area’s most vocal opposing representatives, say that career service workers in the restaurant industry are not victims.
“I don’t need anybody’s pity,” Hogan said. “It’s actually empowering. My heart is in this work and I’ve spent the last 11 years cultivating a career for myself. This is what I choose to do, it’s very lucrative in raising a family. I have two teenage boys and it allows me to have a lifestyle that I’m happy with.”
After going over the ROC United report and recent public hearings, the server also said it is worth taking a look at the restaurant industry as a separate entity from the rest of the tipped service industry.
“Tipped employees are also considered to be car wash employees and nail salon technicians and those folks, from what it sounds like in their testimonies, they have some real issues in their industries: being overworked, not being paid properly and not receiving their tips,” she said. “All of that is a totally different issue. It sounds like they need help but to lump them in with the restaurant industry doesn’t make any sense because we don’t face these issues.”
In looking at the bigger picture, employees against the elimination of tip credit have also argued that industry-changing consequences could result from the proposal. They say the need to pay each front of house worker minimum wage will increase business costs and menu prices, which would in turn lower potential tip amounts or turn away business altogether, collapsing the current restaurant culture in a domino effect.
“If this does happen, I will not be able to live here anymore. I love this area but I’ll have to take myself somewhere else where I can make as much money as I want and not have to give it all back to the state on top of all the taxes I’m already paying,” Hahne said.
It’s an argument Jayaraman said has stemmed from the organization of restaurant owners and managers who don’t want to pay their workers. “They’ve operated a fear campaign by telling their workers that tips will go down.”
But Hogan says it’s much more than that.
“If this does happen, owners would be forced to stray from their original business plan,” Hogan said. “Jobs would be lost. The first people to go would be all the support staff–bussers, hosts, bar backs. Then it will start to eliminate servers.”
Using California as an example, as one of the seven states to pay tipped service workers the federal minimum wage, Jayaraman says the industry in New York will survive.
“We don’t even need to speculate what will happen [in New York],” Jayaraman said. “Hourly wage has continued to go up, the industry continues to grow and tips have maintained.”
For now, Gov. Cuomo is still evaluating the possibility of his proposal with Department of Labor-directed hearings across the state.
Jayaraman told The Alt that a number of workers she has seen at hearings so far have been “male, mostly white…of the fine dining profession” and has observed a “division of gender, race and class” in the industry.
But female servers at small businesses and mom-and-pop operations are just as concerned.
“At Hattie’s, we’re already starting to talk about what would happen if this goes through and they’re talking about raising their prices 25 to 30 percent. That’s gonna be $22 or $23 for a plate of fried chicken, that’s crazy,” Hogan said. “Nobody’s going to be able to afford to go out. We’re still trying to figure out who is going to benefit. No one will win, not even the state. I pay taxes on a lot more than $15 an hour.”
“Nobody here needs to be saved,” Hahne said.
The next public hearing will be held on May 18 at 10 A.M. at the Legislative Office Building in Albany. Those who plan on speaking must pre-register online.