Carlos Tenemea and some New York City residents looking for a healthy meal rub shoulders on a daily basis.
But while those New Yorkers who come into the restaurant at which Tenemea works are served a nutritious meal, he says he can’t afford one.
Tenemea, a tipped worker in New York City, joined other tipped workers and labor advocates Wednesday to call on the state minimum wage board, which is soon to be convened by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to recommend to the state labor commissioner that tipped workers’ pay be brought up to par with the state’s minimum wage. While that wage currently sits at $8 and is set to rise to $9 next year, Tenemea and his colleagues say they work for $5 and up — a wage they say isn’t sustainable.
“I am here today to say that $5 is not enough to live off of,” Tenemea, a Spanish-speaking busboy, said through a translator. “We need justice. It’s incredible to me that in the 21st century people in New York are still living in poverty.”
Seven other states have raised the tipped wage to the state minimum wage, including some states with the highest minimum wages in the country, such as Washington. Three of the states have indexed their minimum wage to inflation, something advocates also have called for in New York. Jack Temple, a policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project, said those states with some of the highest minimum wages for all workers also have some of the fastest restaurant industry growth.
There is a law on the books that requires employers to make up the difference to the minimum wage if an employee doesn’t make the regular minimum wage through tips, though advocates have long said there is still a disparity between tipped workers and the rest of the working class.
“Good employers want to make sure that their employees are making the minimum wage,” New York City Hospitality Alliance Executive Director Andrew Rigie said, adding that he can’t speak for employees who might be nervous about telling an employer that their tips don’t make up the difference. “But they do have legal protections in place if they fall short with tips of the minimum wage.”
The state raised the minimum wage for non-tipped workers last year. Advocates are now calling for an indexing and another increase above the projected $9, and this year there was one legislative push to boost the minimum wage to $10.10 but that effort failed.
In brokering a deal to raise the minimum wage in 2013, legislators included a provision that calls on Cuomo to convene a minimum wage board to make a recommendation to state Labor Commissioner Peter Rivera about what raise, if any, there should be to wages. The board has until February of next year to make such a recommendation. An administration official said the board is expected to be launched very soon.
While the plight of downstate tipped workers, especially those in New York City, has repeatedly drawn attention, upstate workers appear to be in the same boat.
“The issues that we deal with in upstate, in often depressed communities, is that we really don’t have these upscale restaurants at all, so the tipped wage workers really are in sub minimum wages,” Labor-Religion Coalition Executive Director Sara Niccoli said.
For Tenemea, who passionately called on Cuomo and Albany leaders to boost wages for him and his colleagues, a statewide raise can’t come soon enough.
“This is the capital of the world,” he said. “We need to have a secure New York, and we’ve come here to Albany many times. We’re exploited in New York City and we need to raise the wage in order to change that.”
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