Biaggi, Yang stand up for better tipped employee wages

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What kind of town hall could bring together state lawmakers, a former presidential candidate, and dozens of New York City workers?

One held by One Fair Wage, a national advocacy group focused on ensuring tipped workers across the country make what they say is a full and fair minimum wage. As thousands of hourly workers across the country lose their jobs in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, One Fair Wage has tapped into its own money to help provide emergency funds for tipped employees trying to keep their heads above water.

The group gathered supportive lawmakers for its town hall as well as restaurant owners and workers, all talking about how lives are being navigated after layoffs and wage reductions.

One of the high-profile attendees of the online video conference was Andrew Yang, a former Democratic presidential candidate and entrepreneur, who founded the job-creating non-profit Venture for America in the wake of the national housing market collapse a decade ago. 

Yang’s presence made sense, considering one of his primary campaign planks was providing a universal basic income for all Americans. He was joined online by state Sens. Alessandra Biaggi, Brad Hoylman and Robert Jackson, as they guided workers through unemployment options and applying for emergency funds.

“We estimate that about 9 million service workers have lost their jobs,” said Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage, during the live-streamed town hall. “In the last weeks, we estimate that 540,000 service workers have lost their jobs in New York state. About 315,000 in New York City.”

Lower pay means tipped workers are eligible for less unemployment insurance money, Jayaraman said.

“We see that a server in California is getting unemployment insurance measured on a $15 an hour wage plus tips,” she said. “That same worker in New York state, if they’re outside of New York City, is going to be getting it on a $7.50 an hour wage plus tips, or in New York City, $10 an hour plus tips.”

The organization is not interested in going back to the old normal, Jayaraman said, but finding a “new normal” with one living minimum wage, plus tips for those workers who currently receive them.

Yezica Tutic, a Brooklyn-based artist and bartender, told town hall attendees that prior to the pandemic shutting down the city’s bars and restaurants, she had been working two jobs — one “under the table.”

“Our hourly wage was so low that it actually doesn’t show in our checks,” Tutic said. “So it doesn’t make a difference, so people actually don’t care if they’re on the books or not.”

But when she was fired from both jobs and applied for unemployment, Tutic said her benefits were calculated based on her on-the-books hourly wage, giving her just $130 per week — not nearly enough to keep up with New York City rent, or any other expenses.

Biaggi has been a vocal supporter of a single living wage, bringing tipped workers in the city up to the $15 per hour minimum wage.

“When you share your stories, it informs the way that we legislate, and it informs the way that policy is designed,” the senator said. “A lot of people don’t think about politics when they think about their lives, but there is not a thing that anybody does that doesn’t have an impact as a result of politics.”

How the city moves forward following the pandemic is as important as how the city functioned during the crisis, Biaggi said. The pandemic has shined a light on systemic inequalities, and it’s time to address those inequalities moving forward.

“It’s hard to get by on a tip wage in good times, let alone in a pandemic,” Biaggi said. “To hear that the benefits the state would be giving anybody would be $130 … to be able to approve that check, and think that this is a conscious and smart decision. While $130 is a great thing to have in your hands, it is unconscionable to think that someone could live on $130 a week.”

Biaggi and her senate colleagues are pushing to resume the legislative session in Albany, working with temporary chamber rules that would allow them to vote remotely rather than gathering in Albany.

“The business of the people is still in front of us, and we intend to fight very hard for all of these things,” Biaggi said.

Yang said he appreciated that One Fair Wage had decided to give money directly to workers in need.

“There are not many organizations that are putting money right into working people’s hands,” Yang said. “Except for OFW. That is actually the best, most direct, most impactful thing that we could do.”

Biaggi said she supports canceling rent during the crisis, and described waiving mortgage and rent payments as “essential.”

“To come out of this and have only a moratorium will mean that the months we missed rent on, or mortgage payments on, will be tacked on to the end,” the senator said. “During a moment where people are not making an income, it seems impossible that that would be something that would be helpful for New Yorkers.”

Rather than spending federal dollars to bail out corporations and large businesses, Yang said money should instead be spent helping regular people.

“We clearly have the money, we’ve had the money the whole time,” Yang said. “That’s why I was running for president, to try and make that happen. No one should be working in the United States of America and not be able to put a roof over their heads, food on the table, and live a good life.”

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