It’s no laughing matter: Amy Poehler wants New York’s waitresses and waiters to get a higher minimum wage. The actress and comedian appeared at the Rockefeller Foundation yesterday to push for better treatment of tipped workers.
Describing her early years of waiting tables in Boston and Chicago, she said that she had to deal with “incredible amounts of harassment from customers and co-workers. It was a very routine way of life.”
“Let’s just stop underserving the many people that serve us,” the SNL alum and UCB founder implored the crowd.
Poehler was speaking on behalf of One Fair Wage, a national campaign by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United that’s imploring New York to join other states that pay tipped workers a set minimum wage along with their tips. The current practice requires employers to pay a “cash wage” of as little as $8 per hour and meet the state minimum wage by factoring in the server’s tip money.
Poehler was introduced by event host and ROC United co-founder Saru Jayaraman, author of Behind the Kitchen Door: The People Who Make and Serve Your Food. Jayaraman talked of the larger negative effects of working exclusively for tips, from its roots in slavery to its negative effects on women.
Another politically active actress, Erika Alexander, told everyone that “people deserve one fair wage to live with dignity and secure their well being with a guaranteed living minimum wage and we’re here to get it. Now. Time’s up, pay up.”
The event also brought out James Mallios, a practicing attorney and owner of Amali restaurant, who said his management practices of increased wages and anti-sexual harassment training has led to low employee turnover. He stressed to the audience that “as you think about going to restaurants that value where they buy their food, that you [should] think of their labor practices in the same breath as you do their commitment to well sourced produce, meat and fish.”
Political commentator Sally Kohn wasn’t shy about saying that the present tipped wages are “really messed up,” but added that it’s “a problem that is caused by policy and can be solved by policy.” Kohn said she doesn’t think that restaurant patrons know that the servers live off their tips. In light of California being one of seven states that pays tipped workers the minimum wage, Kohn joked that “as a New Yorker it pisses me off that California is doing better than us on this.”
The politicians in attendance were led by State Senate minority leader Andrea Stewart Cousins, who spoke of the upcoming hearings on fair wages that Gov. Andrew Cuomo promised in his recent state of the state address. Cousins’ ally, State Assembly member Ellen Jaffe, echoed her support for Gov. Cuomo, saying she was “really pleased that the governor started to pay attention to what we’re moving forward to do in assuring that we are responding to issues of sexual harassment in the workplace and how it actually relates to the tipped wage.”
Of course, not all tipped employees work in food service. Araceli Ramirez, a nail salon technician, came on behalf of the New York Nail Workers Association and talked of going without food in order to serve as many customers as possible. She was joined by car wash worker advocates Patricio Martinez and his wife Federica. Patricio, the shop steward for his detailing crew in Queens, told the audience through a translator that “we contribute to this economy, we pay our taxes, we’re 4,000 workers in New York City and we want this change.” Federica added that “sometimes the employers use the tips to benefit themselves” and “that’s why we are asking all employers to pay what is just because we cannot sustain our families.”