Activists are celebrating the rise of New York State’s minimum tipped wage, from $5 to $7.50 an hour, as a major victory.
But in the classic hipster style this city — Brooklyn in particular — has made famous, bartenders and servers in the upscale restaurants and bars of New York reacted with a modest range of emotions, from pleasant surprise to chill ambivalence.
“That’s cool, I didn’t know about that,” said Liz Wolfernan, a bartender at Martha, on DeKalb Avenue in Fort Greene. “Did you hear about that?” she asked a colleague as workers finished closing the restaurant before midnight on February 24. “I think what’s interesting is who has the responsibility of paying people for their work. This is the only industry where the people who are paying you aren’t the people who are hiring you.”
A Chicago transplant, Wolfernan has been tending bar in New York for a year and a half. Her wages from the restaurant represent only a small slice of her annual income, which is mostly composed of tips. But the raise, she says, will offer more stability during weeks when she doesn’t get many customers.
“You can have a really bomb week,” says Wolfernan, 28. “And the next week you don’t make that much.”
She’s one of about 400,000 tipped employees in New York City who will be getting a raise on December 31 this year, according to restaurant-industry labor group Restaurant Opportunities Center United. New York State acting commissioner of labor Mario Musolino signed off on the increased minimum wage on February 24. In addition to raising the wage, the commissioner agreed to review whether the wage gap between tipped and other workers should be scrapped altogether.
Much like Wolfernan, other city restaurant workers were happy to hear their wages would go up this year. But at Lola, a casual-chic French restaurant on Myrtle Avenue in Clinton Hill, server Ksenija Ajdinovic had concerns about the plans.
Ajdinovic, 32, has been living in the United States since the late 2000s, when she moved from Serbia, which has no wage gap between bartenders and other workers. “Tips in Serbia are not really a common thing,” she says. “They’re mostly just little. It’s not like here, where it’s the worst thing if you don’t tip.”
Joe O’Dea, another European transplant who moved to New York City from Ireland, also hopes the increased wage doesn’t put a dent in America’s tipping tradition.
“We’ve been used to this system for a very long time,” says O’Dea, who has worked at Jim Brady’s Irish Pub in Manhattan’s financial district for twenty years. But, he adds, “Most New Yorkers will probably tip no matter what. And the ones who won’t tip, don’t tip now anyway.”
Tsedeye Gebreselassie, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project, says that the raise will make the service industry better for people who work in less pricey establishments.
“It’s true that in fine dining, servers can make a good income,” says Gebreselassie, whose group lobbied for separate minimum wages in New York to be eliminated entirely. “But the median wage for a server in New York State is less than $10 an hour.”
Servers in the state made an average of $9.14 an hour including tips last year, leaving them at the mercy of customers who have the power to shaft them on their paycheck, says Gebreselassie. She concedes that restaurateurs are obligated to “top up” tips for workers who make less than minimum wage on a shift — but she says making sure that bosses follow those rules is “an enforcement nightmare.”
Just ask Ashley Ogogor, a bartender at an Irish pub in Brooklyn. “When you work at mom-and-pop places, it’s hard for them to comply with that,” she says, adding that a colleague from a former job told her that regardless of whether a server there made the state minimum wage of $8.75 an hour on a shift, they still received just $5.55 hourly from the bar. “That’s not legal,” she says. “I asked him again, ‘Are you sure?’ That’s not how it’s supposed to go!”
According to New York State law, employers are expected to bolster the wages of tipped workers on shifts where they don’t make enough in tips for their income to equal the state minimum wage or more.