WASHINGTON — The food service industries must change as states across the country plan to reopen businesses, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said in a conference call Friday.
One Fair Wage, a national campaign focusing on raising the wages of tipped and subminimum wage workers, hosted the call in partnership with NowThis and The Appeal for the discussion, which took place on Facebook Live.
Founding Farmers owner Dan Simons joined Gillibrand, along with restaurant workers impacted by COVID-19.
When restaurants in the Hudson Valley are usually gearing up to welcome back tourists, pack their patios and offer happy hour specials, this year is a little different. Bars and restaurant dining rooms across the state were closed at the order of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Those who are able have made the transition to take-out and delivery menus.
“This is uncharted territory for us,” according to the Lawrence Park fundraising page. “As a brand new business, we were finally starting to find our groove before this global pandemic hit. Now we have had to make the incredibly difficult decision to lay off our entire staff, so that they might be able to collect unemployment during these difficult times.”
Initial research is showing that a majority of tipped workers are not able to access unemployment benefits because they received a subminimum wage plus tips that did not total enough income to qualify for benefits, according to the group Data for Progress.
The system was broken before the COVID-19 pandemic, One Fair Wage President Saru Jayaraman said. Her group is advocating for a $15 minimum wage.
“We can’t go back to the way things were,” Jayaraman said. “If this pandemic has exposed anything, it’s the fact that we are so interconnected, it’s the fact that we rely on each other as humans, whether you’re a CEO in the 1% or you’re a low-wage worker. We’re interconnected, we depend on one another for our survival, and it’s that interconnectedness that forces us to take care of one another in every way.”
Before the crisis, nearly 1 in 10 workers in New York worked in food service. Approximately half of working Americans have worked in the service industry at some point in their lives. The federal minimum hourly wage for tipped employees is $2.13, based on the Fair Labor Standards Act.
“Now, Sen. Gillibrand is working alongside food industry and restaurant service workers to protect hard-working people earning subminimum wages,” said Emily Galvin-Almanza, senior legal counsel at The Justice Collaborative.
Gillibrand said small businesses, like restaurants, are the lifeblood of the economy.
“The interim relief package we passed last week includes $325 million for small businesses and new rules to ensure more businesses have access to the funds,” Gillibrand said. “Nearly one-fifth of the funding for the small business program will be set aside for smaller lenders, and the relief package also includes $60 billion for communities and small businesses in underserved areas.”
Because things will not be the same as they were before, Gillibrand said now is the time to decide what the future should look like.
“‘Normal’ wasn’t working for most working people before the crisis, and it’s not going to work after,” Gillibrand said. “This is the time for bold, transformative policies that reshape our workplaces and our country. We cannot ask people to go back to work for as little as $2.13 an hour.”
Gillibrand called for eliminating the tipped minimum wage and increasing the minimum wage to $15, which she said will be good for all workers, their families and for the health of the economy.
Sens. Gillbrand and Patty Murray, D-Wash., and U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., introduced the PAID Leave Act.
The PAID Leave Act builds on bipartisan agreement in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to ensure the U.S. has a Federal Paid Leave Policy.
Under the act, all workers would be allowed to take advantage of 14 paid sick days and 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. The bill would fully and quickly reimburse employers for all paid sick days and paid leave in 2020 and 2021.
A recent report by One Fair Wage and The Justice Collaborative polled over 1,100 potential voters, finding that 78% support a full minimum wage for all workers, including 78% of all Republicans polled, so they do not have to rely on tips.
Of that, 72% support requiring any company that accepts government bailout funding to pay workers at least $15 per hour.
Nearly 60% agree the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that society takes low-income workers for granted, and that America’s goal after the pandemic should be to have a fairer economy for all workers.
“As is always true in times of economic crisis, it is the lowest-paid, least-protected workers who suffer most,” according to the report. “As is especially true now, when the economic downturn is the result of orders to stay at home and close certain businesses, it is workers in service industries, many of whom rely on tips for most of their pay, who have borne the greatest impact.”
The minimum wage for tipped food service employees in New York state, excluding New York City, Long Island and Westchester County, is $7.85.
Gillibrand said states should continue to raise the minimum wage through ballot measures, which makes it easier for the federal government to build on that success. The biggest challenge facing raising minimum wage on the federal level is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Gillibrand said.
“He does not believe in getting rid of the tipped wage,” Gillibrand said. “He does not believe in a living wage, and neither do most of his Republican Senate colleagues.”
Gillibrand said the federal minimum wage should rise to $15 per hour, and then be indexed to inflation to grow with rising costs.
Abby Hoover is a reporter for Columbia-Greene Media. Contact her at email@example.com.