Op-Ed | Tipped workers need a full wage during COVID-19 and beyond — that’s why we’re striking

Cropped image of woman waitress in apron hold out bill folder to cafe visitor of cafe or restaurant.
Photo via Getty Images

By Annette Alcala

I’ve worked as a bartender for the last 6 years. It is my chosen profession. There are millions like me who love this industry but were left with nothing when the pandemic shut us down. We love this industry, but it must change. 

That’s why I’m joining dozens of my peers in the first national tipped workers’ strike to demand a full minimum wage with tips on top. NYC and Chicago went on strike today, but many more cities plan to follow soon. We need legislators to hear us: if we don’t get a full fair wage with tips on top and restaurant relief, millions of us will not be able to feed our families or stay housed, and thousands of your favorite restaurants won’t be around soon. 

Nearly 10 million service workers have lost employment since the pandemic began, and the majority of us were unable to access unemployment benefits because we earned the subminimum wage for tipped workers. A legacy of slavery, the subminimum wage for tipped workers is still just $2.13 an hour at the federal level, and $10 an hour in NY.

Even before the pandemic, this system created many challenges for us. You could never count on tips – they went up and down depending on the guest, day, and season. As a woman of color, I always made less because customers tip women and people of color less. In fact, women of color earn $8 less than white men in restaurant dining floors in NY, which is a product of both customer bias in tipping and because women of color are segregated into casual restaurants where tips are lower. 

Now, a system that never worked has created a horrific crisis. After months of waiting for my unemployment payments, what I received was based off of only a fraction of my actual income since my cash tips were never claimed. In fact, around 60% of tipped workers nationwide were told that our income was too low to meet the minimum threshold to qualify for benefits. This backwards system has resulted in mass starvation and even homelessness among restaurant workers. 

Now, millions of us are being recalled to work, risking exposure to the virus, when tips are down 50-75%.

We’re hearing from legislators that they won’t be dealing with any issues this year that aren’t COVID related. We want to make sure legislators hear us: this is a COVID crisis. Without a liveable wage and restaurant relief, neither restaurant workers nor the restaurants they work in will be around when the pandemic ends.

Governor Cuomo and other NY elected officials, we’re looking at you to ensure tipped workers are protected — during COVID-19 and beyond.