Why Restaurant Workers Are Protesting New York’s Minimum Wage Plan

Protesters calling for a $15 minimum wage before Governor Cuomo signed the policy into law. Photo: James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images

When Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a $15 minimum wage bill into law in 2016, the pay raise did not apply to tipped workers, who under the new policy earned between $10 and $12.50 an hour. Last month, Cuomo decided to extend the law to a new subset of tipped workers, but excluded restaurant workers, leading to protests outside his office this week. Here’s why advocates are unhappy with the decision.

Why were tipped workers left out in the first place?
When Cuomo raised the minimum wage, he maintained what’s called a two-tier wage system. On one tier were the workers who don’t receive tips, including fast-food workers, whose wages were raised to $15 an hour. The second tier consisted of tipped workers, who make less than $15 an hour, with the expectation that the remainder will be made up in tips. But if the tips don’t meet that threshold, then the employers must make sure their employees’ wages add up to $15 an hour.

What’s wrong with that system?
According to advocates like One Fair Wage, restaurant owners can’t be trusted to police themselves, and the two-tier system makes workers vulnerable to wage theft as well as sexual harassment and discrimination.

What change did Governor Cuomo make in December for tipped workers?
On New Year’s Eve, the governor’s office announced that he’d come to the exact same conclusion about the shortfalls of a tipped minimum-wage system. In response, Cuomo decided to raise the minimum wage to $15 across a number of “miscellaneous industries,” including car washes, hair and nail salons, valet services, and more — but the change did not apply to restaurant workers. Miscellaneous, indeed.

Why were restaurant workers left out?
The governor has offered no explanation, leaving advocates “surprised” and “furious,” as Gothamist reports. Yesterday, dozens gathered outside Cuomo’s Manhattan office to protest the move, citing the harm the tipped minimum wage does to women, who comprise the majority of restaurant workers.

Are there people who disagree with the protesters?
Yes. One of the supporters of the subminimum wage or two-tier wage system is the Restaurant Workers of America, which sent its co-founder to this week’s rally with flyers that criticized one of the rally organizers, ROC United. (Last month, ROC pulled the plug on its Lower East Side restaurant, Colors, after just one month in business. Workers were paid more than the minimum wage.) RWA has claimed that raising the minimum wage for tipped workers would run restaurants out of business, although so far, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Have other states made the single wage policy work?
While it’s still too early to declare success, seven other states — Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington — have One Fair Wage policies and seem likely to keep them in place.

Restaurant Workers Are Protesting New York’s Minimum Wage