What is it with Democrats and waiters? Less than 60 days after Hillary Clinton sparked tabloid headlines and tonight show guffaws by exiting an upstate diner without leaving a tip, the Democratic-led New York State assembly passed a bill cutting back a minimum-wage increase for tipped workers in restaurants and bars. The bill was quickly approved by the Republican-dominated State Senate and signed by Governor George Pataki on March 31, leaving labor activists steaming. “Talk about getting stiffed!” exclaimed professor Michael Wishnie of NYU Law School’s Immigrant Rights Clinic. “In this economy, this rollback is outrageous.”
The restaurant workers won the raise last December when the legislature prospectively upped the state minimum wage from $4.25—where it had been stuck for nine years and had fallen to 37th in the nation—to the federal rate of $5.15. The move was intended to address the plight of the state’s 45,000 migrant farmworkers, who, along with several hundred thousand other New Yorkers—mostly seasonal workers—are subject to state, not federal, minimums. But it turns out that the state rate group also includes tipped “hospitality industry” employees—some 111,000 waitresses, busboys, and bartenders whose minimum wage was pegged by state law at about two-thirds of the general minimum. Accordingly, the state minimum for waiters was set to jump from $2.90 to $3.50 on April 1.
Enter the state’s powerful $14.2 billion restaurant industry, which launched an intense lobbying campaign that culminated in the last-minute assembly bill. The legislation, shepherded through the assembly by speaker Sheldon Silver and labor committee chair Catherine Nolan, capped the tipped workers’ minimum at $3.30. Mario Cilento, a spokesperson for the state AFL-CIO, says, “It’s unfathomable that they would go to all this trouble to deny these low-wage earners 20 cents an hour.” Worse, adds the Immigrant Rights Clinic’s Chakshu Patel, the bill unhooked the tipped workers’ minimum from the general minimum, meaning, she says, that “if other workers get a raise in their minimum wage, restaurant workers won’t. Instead, they’ll have to fight a new and separate battle to increase their wages every time the general minimum is increased in the future.”
Restaurant owners applauded the legislation, arguing that it prevented an unnecessary windfall for waiters. “Most waiters and waitresses are making well over the minimum wage,” says Holly Cargill-Cramer of the New York State Restaurant Association. “In fact, given the economy, a good waiter or waitress is going to be able to name their price in New York. It may be different out in Plattsburgh or out in Oneonta.”
You don’t have to tell that to Tricia Trupo. She’s the waitress in Albion, New York (pop: 6000), who got nil from Hillary in February after serving the newly minted Senate candidate a breakfast of scrambled eggs, home fries, and rye toast. Actually, the circumstances of that meal are a bit more ambiguous than the tabs would have it: The owner of Albion’s Village House restaurant had put Clinton’s meal on the house—and HRC later sent Trupo a $100 savings bond in recompense. But the 31-year-old Trupo’s economic difficulties are pretty unambiguous. A single mom with an 11-year-old, Trupo still makes the minimum wage after 11 years as a waitress. Neither she nor her son has health insurance. Last week, she said she was exhausted after getting up at 5:15 a.m. to work an early shift, which she chose since “I don’t have to pay day care when my son’s in school. But I just have to do it. My son doesn’t go without anything. I make sure of that.”
A State Department of Labor survey conducted in 1997 found the average wage for waiters and waitresses was $6.34 an hour with tips, slightly more than $13,000 a year for a 40-hour work week. The migrant farmhands, whose grim working lives prompted a Daily News editorial crusade last year and an unusually active campaign by organized labor—which represents no farmworkers and a small fraction of waiters—made an average of $7.87 an hour last year, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report. The farmworkers, of course, also endure squalid housing and, because of arcane labor law exemptions, are effectively denied the right to unionize.
Waiters in New York City averaged more than their upstate counterparts, $7.01 an hour, or about $14,500 per year, but especially in immigrant pockets of the city like Chinatown—whose restaurant industry is notorious for low wages and labor-law violations—many make considerably less. Indeed, in an effort to stave off the assembly’s scaling back of the minimum-wage raise, longtime Chinatown labor organizer Wing Lam of Chinese Staff and Workers Association led a small group of restaurant workers up to Albany two weeks ago. They hoped to make a case for abolishing the two-tieredminimum-wage system—as California did 25 years ago (there, waiters—and all others—earn a state minimum of $5.75 plus tips).
The workers returned embittered by what they say was a cold shoulder from speaker Silver, whose district includes Chinatown and the Lower East Side. Says Lam, “Silver rushed this bill through just a couple days before the increase was supposed to take effect. It’s ridiculous what he did. He wouldn’t meet with us directly. There should at least have been a hearing.” Silver did not return calls for comment. The assembly approved the bill by a vote of 119 to 21.
Queens assemblymember Nolan says she too was disappointed by the cutback, but defends it as “the best possible bill we could get. The Republicans control the senate—and they wanted to freeze the wage. There’s a Republican governor. You have all these restaurant owners, especially upstate, complaining that they can’t afford it, and it’s not like we have anybody comparable we can partner with.” (At least one upstate Republican assemblymember voted against the bill—because it gave workers too much.) And, says Nolan, had the assembly not acted, Pataki might have tried to administratively roll back the wage to $2.90, and “I just didn’t want to go there.”
But labor advocates say the assembly’s cutback was unnecessary. “If the assembly had just done nothing, the full increase would have taken effect on April 1,” says NYU’s Wishnie. “In this case, there was no need for a compromise with Republicans.” Lam claims that during his lobbying day, Republican legislators whispered to him that fighting the minimum increase was not high on their agenda. And last week, a spokesperson for the governor told the Times that predictions of an administrative rollback were “complete and total nonsense.” In any case, argues West Side assemblymember Scott Stringer, who voted against the bill, the assembly should have forced Pataki to play villain. “My rationale is, you put the heat on them to justify gypping some of the absolute lowest wage earners in the state. And besides, you don’t promise workers something—and then take their raise away.”
Meanwhile, Lam and other activists are vowing to put the heat on Silver. Last Tuesday, a group of about 20 waiters and their allies held an angry picket outside the speaker’s lower Broadway district office. Guo Chang Liang, a 56-year-old who said he had worked as a waiter in Chinatown for a dozen years, held up a sign reading “Sheldon Silver, Dog of the Year.” His complaints were echoed by Alex, a 33-year-old aspiring actor who works in a “small, hip” Lower East Side restaurant. “I like the fact that I don’t have to work five days a week. But waiting tables is really hard work, and I have trouble making a living, period. I feel like the restaurant industry is making a lot of money, and this is bullshit.” Lam vowed to hound Silver “until he’s gone. This guy sold out restaurant workers, working people. We’re in his district, and he sold us out.”