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  • Sadie Brown

Restaurant Workers Say NYC Tipping Policies Leave Them Underpaid And Abused

The motto, “We’re all family here” scrolling across a marquee above Olive Garden in Times Square stood in stark contrast Thursday morning to protest signs calling for a stop to abuse, discrimination and unfair wage policies in the restaurant industry.

Advocates from One Fair Wage, New York Communities For Change, elected officials, and restaurant workers gathered in front of the restaurant owned by Darden Concepts to ask Governor Kathy Hochul to end subminimum wages for restaurant workers in New York.

State law allows restaurants to pay tipped workers below minimum wage assuming that tips will make up the difference, a practice that 46-year-old activist Damani Vardano says needs to change immediately.

“We can stem all this violence and the sexual harassment that men and women are experiencing with an executive action by Kathy Hochul: one fair wage,” Vardano said.

One Fair Wage filed a lawsuit against Darden, alleging that its pay structure encouraged sexual harassment and racial disparaties in tipping. The suit cited a poll that One Fair Wage conducted of “hundreds of current and former Darden employees”, according to court documents.

A judge in California dismissed the lawsuit earlier this month.

Restaurant groups like Darden are powerful in the service industry, operating over 1,800 locations, making them one of the largest private employers in the United States, according to its website.

From 2016 to 2019, Darden contributed more than $400,000 to the National Restaurant Association, a group that spent over $1.4 million in lobbying efforts in the first two quarters of 202. According to lobbying disclosures, the group publicly opposes ending subminimum wages.

However, One Fair Wage’s campaign didn’t only target Darden. The organization’s website said that large numbers of tipped workers across the industry had trouble making ends meet on subminimum wages plus tips.

Server and bartender, Annette Alcala, has been struggling in the pre-fall slow season. She estimated making around $300 in tips over 30 hours of work this week. The 31-year-old didn’t disclose the name of her employer, for fear of retaliation.

“The hard part is being told you’re not worth being paid enough because you’re a person of color or in the service industry,” Alcala said.

In her 13 years in the industry, Alcala has suffered harassment and name-calling from customers, saying the abuse was “traumatizing.”

“I’ve learned how hostile people are to people in the service industry because they think we are uneducated and can’t get other jobs,” Alcala said.

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