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Wage justice is racial justice—tipped workers deserve full minimum wage

Paying a subminimum wage to tipped workers disproportionately harms Black women.
Fatima Goss Graves, Angie Jean-Marie & Shannon Williams August 13th, 2020
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The history of New York City, and thus New York state, is bound up with the history of Black Americans—for better or worse. Some of the very first enslaved African people were brought to what was then New Amsterdam, where they were sold at what was the first slave auction in what would become the United States. Although New York would go on to abolish slavery and become a hub for the abolitionist movement, discrimination was never abolished—despite having the largest African American population in the nation from the mid-19th century until today.  

New research shows that nationwide, Black women who work on the dining floor of restaurants are paid on average $4.79 an hour less than their white male peers in the industry. But in New York, the pay gap is 60% worse—that difference is a staggering $7.95. The only state with a statistically significant Black population that has a substantially larger disparity than New York is Alabama. If New York is serious about standing on the right side of racial justice going forward, it must eliminate a key driver of this disparity—one that is a direct legacy of slavery: the subminimum wage for tipped workers. If New York is serious about addressing racial and gender equity, the state must move to One Fair Wage for all New Yorkers.

New York state ended slavery well before the Emancipation Proclamation, and yet the fact that employers can legally pay restaurant workers less than the minimum wage flies in the face of emancipation and liberation. Our federal law and 42 other states, in addition to New York, have allowed the legacy of slavery to persist and hold back the wages of Black women for generations. In fact, the subminimum wage for tipped workers was enshrined into law during the Jim Crow era because the restaurant industry didn’t want to pay newly freed Black workers. Instead, restaurant employers crafted a loophole so that tips from customers would count as wages and restaurant owners would be free from paying their Black workers a full minimum wage.

By any measure this is untenable and unjust—it was then and it is now. But it is especially so when considering that the majority of New York tipped workers today are women, and that tipped workers in casual restaurants are disproportionately women of color. Forcing women to live “tip-to-mouth” simply enshrines discrimination as public policy. The fact that Black female  tipped workers make $7.95 per hour less than their white male counterparts can be traced to two facts: Women of color are segregated into more casual restaurants in New York, making less in tips than their fine dining counterparts, and customers tip Black workers less than white workers.

Paying all workers One Fair Wage—a full minimum wage with tips on top—would reduce these workers’ dependence on the biased tipped system as their primary source of income. Furthermore, research has shown that rates of sexual harassment among restaurant workers are typically higher in states with lower minimum wages for tipped workers, compared with states that have moved to One Fair Wage with tips on top. For Black women restaurant workers especially, this is a vicious cycle—forcing them to disproportionately endure sexual harassment while making disproportionately less money.  

And if this situation wasn’t bad enough before, the COVID-19 crisis has made it downright unimaginable. Nationwide, one in four Americans who have lost their jobs in the last few months are workers in the restaurant industry. And evidence suggests New York’s restaurant industry is suffering the most nationwide, with 93% of New York restaurants laying off or furloughing employees as of late April 2020. A July 2020 survey of nearly 100 New York restaurant workers demonstrated that a minority are being called back to work for an average of 10 hours per week and a majority of those being called back are reporting at least a 50% decline in tips—which is felt most by Black women who already earned less tips to begin with. As our country continues to reckon with the deep and enduring legacy of systemic racism in America, we continue not only to be pummeled by a virus that is disproportionately infecting and killing Black people, but also economic policies rooted in maintaining racial inequity and marginalization.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Recognizing the deep injustices of the subminimum wage for tipped workers, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo used his executive authority to eliminate the subminimum wage for many New Yorkers at the end of last year. But Cuomo left out restaurant workers, by far the largest group of subminimum workers in the state. It’s not too late to act. With one stroke of his pen, Cuomo can enact One Fair Wage for all New Yorkers and help end racial discrimination and sexual harassment in the restaurant industry—ensuring that as the industry comes back, it comes back better and more just than ever.  

This year, Aug. 13 marks Black Women’s Equal Pay Day—the day in 2020 that marks how far into the year Black women working full time need to work to be paid what their white, non-Hispanic male counterparts were paid in 2019 alone. We can and must do better, and New York, with one of the largest Black communities in the country, and one of the largest restaurant industries too, can set a big example for the rest of the nation to follow.  

Wage justice is racial justice. Wage justice is gender justice. As we mark Black Women’s Equal Pay Day today, we call on Cuomo to enact One Fair Wage now.  

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This op-ed was co-authored by:

Fatima Goss Graves, president, National Women’s Law Center

Diana Ramirez, National Women's Law Center

Shannon Williams, program director, Equal Pay Today, Equal Rights Advocates

Angie Jean-Marie, director of public engagement, TIME’S UP Foundation

Melanie Campbell, president/CEO, National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and the convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable

Nicole Mason, president & CEO, Institute for Women’s Policy Research

Erica Smiley, executive director, Jobs With Justice

Nikki Cole, national policy director, One Fair Wage

Beejhy Barhany, owner, Tsion Cafe, Harlem


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