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Waitresses to actresses urging wage increase: Back off

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For more than a year, a group of Hollywood actresses waving the banner of the Time’s Up movement have been pressing Gov. Andrew Cuomo to apply New York’s minimum wage to workers who earn tips, arguing that it would make waitresses less vulnerable to sexual harassment.

Among the celebrities weighing in are Sarah Jessica Parker, Michelle Williams, Amy Poehler and Amy Schumer.

Not surprisingly, the restaurant industry is pushing back, saying the proposed change would spell doom for many businesses.

But it has also created an unexpected divide: Waitresses and other servers are resisting the proposal, saying they can make more money from tips and do not need celebrities to help protect them from harassment.

Harassment is a real concern, they say, but so is the need to earn a living.

“The resounding message from servers in New York to these actresses in Hollywood is to just leave us alone,” said Maggie Raczynski, a bartender at an Outback Steakhouse in upstate New York. “These celebrities have literally no idea. I feel like they need to butt out.”

In the middle stands Cuomo, who proposed eliminating the subminimum wage early last year, setting off the debate. Schumer recently spoke with the governor to try to persuade him to stop letting businesses pay their tipped workers less.

The state Department of Labor has held public hearings around the state that were supposed to inform the governor’s choice.

But eight months after the last hearing, Cuomo has made no announcement. A spokeswoman for the governor said the Labor Department was “the only regulatory agency legally permitted to review this issue and they are currently in the review process.”

The labor commissioner, Roberta Reardon, a former actress and union leader who once supported herself as a waitress, said in a statement that “this issue affects multiple industries, thousands of workers, large and small businesses alike and every region of the state.”

“We have a responsibility to make sure we do this correctly, not quickly,” she continued.

A spokeswoman for Reardon said the department had taken 40 hours of testimony on the issue, which could affect all sorts of businesses, including carwashes, nail salons and food delivery.

But activists pushing for uniform, higher minimum wages for all workers are losing their patience and have made Cuomo a prime target. “He says he wants to be a progressive leader. Then he should take this executive action now, rather than let the U.S. House beat him to it,” said Saru Jayaraman, president of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, which began as an advocacy group for restaurant workers in New York City.

Jayaraman was alluding to the Raise the Wage Act pending in Congress, which would gradually lift the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and eliminate the lower wage for tipped workers. The government has traditionally allowed employers to pay less to workers who receive tips, like waitresses, bartenders and valets. The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 an hour for nearly 10 years, but the federal minimum for tipped workers is just $2.13 an hour.

The Democrats who control the House may pass the Raise the Wage Act, but it stands almost no chance in the Republican-controlled Senate. That is why advocates like Jayaraman and celebrity activists are focused on state-by-state battles.

Last week, Hillary Clinton wrote to Cuomo and other leaders in Albany, calling on them to eliminate the lower wage for tipped workers, Jayaraman said.

Only seven states, including California, Washington and Minnesota, bar employers from paying tipped workers less than the minimum wage, a practice known as a tip credit. Tips are expected to cover the gap and, if they do not, employers are supposed to make up the difference.

In Michigan, after voters approved the adoption of a One Fair Wage proposal, lawmakers drew up a plan to gradually raise the state’s minimum wages for tipped and nontipped workers to $12 an hour, eventually eliminating the gap between the two. But in November, the Republican-controlled Legislature revised the bill to increase the minimum wage for nontipped workers more slowly and to raise the minimum for tipped workers to only $4.58 by 2030. The current minimums in Michigan are $9.25 for nontipped workers and $3.52 for tipped workers.

In New York City, many servers at busy restaurants and bars earn more than enough in tips to push their hourly wage well above the $15 minimum. “The best-paid people in the restaurant are the servers and the bartenders,” said Jeremy Merrin, owner of four Havana Central restaurants, including one in Times Square. “My servers make well in excess of $20 an hour.”

Tending tables or mixing drinks has traditionally been a reliable means of survival for aspiring actors and actresses or a steady way to pay the bills between gigs. Raising wages for tipped workers, many waitresses say, could threaten an economic lifesaver if it forces restaurants to change tipping policies or, worse, puts them out of business.

An aspiring young actress who has worked as a waitress in a Manhattan restaurant for the past three years said she worried that restaurants would raise menu prices and switch to a nontipping model if they had to pay servers $15 an hour. The actress, who just landed a role in an independent horror film but declined to be identified to avoid upsetting her employer, said she would not continue as a waitress without the chance to earn tips.

D. Sweeney, a former actor who said he made a “very comfortable living” as a bartender in New York, was adamant about his opposition to the proposed change. “I’m telling you that I don’t want my wage raised,” Sweeney said. “Why am I saying that? Am I an idiot?”

Raising restaurant labor costs any further, he said, could trigger several changes in the business model that would hurt workers more than they would help. “Immigrant support staff will be the first to be fired,” he said.

The initial backlash against Cuomo’s plan to eliminate the tip credit came from a group of servers led by Raczynski, the Outback Steakhouse bartender, who lives in Speigletown, New York.

Raczynski said she was angered by a letter sent to Cuomo by Hollywood celebrities including Poehler, Reese Witherspoon and Natalie Portman. The actresses urged the governor to eliminate the lower minimum wage for servers because, they said, it created a “work environment where customers feel entitled to abuse women in exchange for service.”

The servers fired back in a letter to the actresses, saying, “Thank you for your concern. But we don’t need your help and we’re not asking to be saved.”

In an interview this week, Raczynski said her employer had already trimmed staff to offset the steady rise in wages that Cuomo championed a few years ago. The minimum wage rose at the end of last year to $15 an hour in New York City and $11.10 upstate. But employers can pay tipped workers $10 an hour in New York City and $7.50 an hour upstate.

“We didn’t ask for an increase in our wage because we do rely on our tips,” Raczynski said. She was not worried about getting harassed by customers.

“I would not let anyone harass anyone in my restaurant,” she said, adding that she believed some of the actresses involved in the campaign lacked legitimacy to try to protect other women from boorish behavior.

“For an actress who was on a show called ‘Sex and the City’ to say she is worried about other women getting harassed seems strange to me,” she said, referring to Parker. “Actresses helped immensely in sexualizing women and the role they play in this world.”

Still, the One Fair Wage campaign has continued to enlist celebrities in its pleas to Cuomo to eliminate the lower wage for tipped workers. Seven actresses, including Schumer, Williams and Jane Fonda, signed a letter to the governor in late December that said, “We need you to stand with women in the workforce today. We have been patient and we appreciate the thorough review, but the time to act is now.”

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