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Know Your Rights
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Let’s end two-tier pay system

A new wage board has the opportunity to address income inequality in New York by doing away with the state’s outdated two-tier tipped wage system, which leaves a quarter-million tipped workers struggling with low wages, high poverty, and unstable paychecks.

Appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this summer, the Wage Board is tasked with studying and recommending a change in the state’s minimum wage policy for tipped workers. Many don’t realize that when New York state raised its minimum wage to $8 per hour in December, restaurant servers, hotel workers, and some other tipped workers across the state can still be paid just $5 per hour by their employers.

Juana Donato, who co-signed this column, knows what it’s like to live on a tipped minimum wage. Raising six children as a single mother, Juana worked for more than two years at restaurant and bakery, earning only $5 an hour plus tips. She was forced to work long hours — 10 or 12 hours a day, six days a week — just to put food on the table for her children. Her high school daughter had to work as well, to help support the family. Even then, there were many times that Juana could not pay the rent or utilities, and had to borrow money from family members in order to scrape by.

Alliance for a Just Society released a new report ( showing that a living wage in New York state is $18.47 and in New York City, it’s $22.49. And that’s just for a single person.

The report, “Families Out of Balance,” calculates that a living wage for a single parent with two children is $40.66. Juana was raising six children, hoping each day that the tips would make up for her substandard wage. Of course, they never did, not for Juana or for thousands of other sub-minimum wage workers like her.

Work that doesn’t pay a living wage keeps entire communities trapped in debt and on the brink of disaster. A living wage, on the other hand, provides for the very basic necessities such as food, housing, transportation and child care. A real living wage allows families to save a little for emergencies, so illness or an unexpectedly high heating bill in the winter isn’t a catastrophe.

Let’s be blunt. A tip is not a wage. It’s a gratuity for good service. It’s time for New York to act — state leaders must abolish the sub-minimum wage that keeps tipped workers trapped in poverty, because no worker should be a second-class employee.

Other states have done it. Restaurants in Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington pay tipped employees the regular minimum wage. Many of those businesses have adjusted without cutting jobs, and they report happier workers, who might actually be able to afford a meal at a restaurant themselves once in a while.

It’s time for New York to join those other states that have one minimum wage, not a sub-class of workers. After all, tipped workers provide services we need; it’s the least we can do.

LeeAnn Hall is executive director of Alliance for a Just Society, a national research, policy, and organizing network striving for economic and social equity. Juana Donato is a single mother and a member of Make the Road New York, a community-based organization that builds the power of immigrant and working class communities to achieve dignity and justice.

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