By Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein
Clergy often have a unique window into the reality of our economy. We in ministry witness the effects of New York’s first-in-the-nation income gap in our congregations, our neighborhoods and our city. While some in our pews prosper, many others struggle to pay bills, buy groceries and support their children. It is troubling to see how many of our neighbors are unable to afford basic necessities despite working long hours. The reality is that the wages of New York’s lowest-paid workers are too low to live on.
For this reason, I celebrated last year when the State Legislature at long last raised the minimum wage. The increase makes a real difference for millions in our state trying to make ends meet. Unfortunately, though, a significant part of the low-wage workforce – workers who make tips – was left out. New York’s 229,000 tipped workers continue to be guaranteed only a sub-minimum wage, which for food service workers is just $5 per hour.
Now New York has the opportunity to give these workers the raise they need and deserve. Last month Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced he is preparing to appoint a wage board that will consider changing the tipped minimum wage. It’s time for New York, through the wage board process, to get rid of the sub-minimum wage and ensure one fair wage for all workers.
Tipped workers are currently some of the most vulnerable and overlooked in our economy They include service industry workers like bartenders, hairstylists, car wash attendants, restaurant servers and bussers and hotel workers. Far too often, their tips don’t add up to a livable income. Across the United States, workers who make tips are twice as likely as other workers to live below the poverty line. These workers (70 percent of whom are women) are left to make impossible choices about how to allocate their inadequate pay. A recent study in New York City found a sad irony: 30 percent of tipped food service workers there can’t afford to adequately feed themselves and their families.
This is fundamentally a moral issue. Respecting the dignity of human beings requires that we respect the dignity of their work. For tipped workers, that means paying a fair and reliable wage. Employers should pay the full minimum wage for each hour worked. The tips we pay as customers should be a bonus for a job well done – not a subsidy to make up for deficient wages.
Eliminating the sub-minimum wage has been shown to work for both businesses and their employees. Seven other states already require employers to directly pay tipped workers the full minimum wage. Beyond the economics, though, implementing this change is simply the right thing to do for the neighbors who serve us every day.
Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein is president of the Network of Religious Communities in Buffalo.