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Labor Issues
October 29, 2014

Testimony experiences sought about tip reliant work

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications

The best tip you can give restaurant and hotel workers is to register comments with the New York State Wage Board during a new, active campaign to examine the wage structure of workers who are forced to rely on tips for the basic foundation of their income.     

At stake is whether changes should be made to the regulations for tipped workers in the hospitality industry. Wage Board members will develop recommendations after research and consideration of both oral and written public testimony, which can be provided at http://labor.ny.gov/workerprotection/laborstandards/wageboard2014.shtm

Comments can include personal experience working a tipped job; experience of parents, friends or offspring; or observations made about the industry.

“We really encourage anyone to provide testimony,” said Sara Niccoli, director of the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State. “It’s important to get workers to sign up and say why they need a raise, otherwise the restaurant owners will drum them out.” 

In a policy brief released in October, the Community Service Society reported that those who work for tips are “more than twice as likely” to live in poverty as those who work for regular wages.

The CSS is an independent organization representing low-income New Yorkers through research, advocacy and program models. Their policy paper reveals that one out of five tipped workers in this state makes less than the $8.00 an hour minimum wage, and 30 percent of tipped workers earn just over $18,000 a year, which is not enough to keep a family of three out of poverty. 

The current pay for workers in the restaurant industry is $5 an hour. And, if it’s a slow night or customers are not generous or the chef didn’t do a good job, it is the tipped workers who go home with barely lined pockets.

“The people serving the food can’t even afford to buy food for themselves and their families,” Niccoli said. 

Hotel maids make $5.65 an hour, and when customers forget to leave a tip, that’s all they take home. In both industries, the restaurant and hotel owners are asking their very customers to significantly supplement their workers.

Theoretically, Niccoli said, a worker can go to an employer and ask for the difference to be made up if they are taking home less than $5 an hour. But that is difficult to enforce or police.

“It’s rife for wage theft,” she said.

Labor-Religion is working with many organizations and coalitions to urge people to comment on the tipped wage industry and to eliminate it, including the National Employer Law Project, http://www.nelp.org/site/issues/category/living_wage_and_minimum_wage/, which reports that the ranks of the working poor now exceed $47 million.

While many hotel and restaurant owners complain that a raise in worker pay would hurt them, Niccoli said seven states have eliminated tipped wages and, in all of them, the largest sector of business growth is the restaurant sector.

Paul Pecorale, NYSUT vice president overseeing social justice, has a succinct answer to those business owners: Giving workers a fair wage will benefit many.

“Working people will be earning a more livable wage and this will put money back into the economy,” he said.

“In New York state, we are the most unequal state in the country (for income),” Niccoli said. “One of the most direct ways we can fix that is to raise the minimum wage.”

The Wage Board was convened in September, immediately opening a website for comments and setting up four public hearings. The first two were held in Syracuse and New York City; there is a hearing in Buffalo on Nov. 13 at Mahoney State Office Building from noon until 3 p.m. and one in Albany on Dec. 9 at the Harriman State Office Campus from noon until 3 p.m. Written testimony can be emailed to wageboard@labor.ny.gov.

To register to speak at the hearings, go to www.labor.ny.gov/wageboard2014. You can also send an e-mail to wageboard@labor.ny.gov or call (518) 457-5519.