A quarter of Americans eat out on Valentine’s Day, one of the biggest days of the year for the industry. But this year, it could be harder than ever to grab a table at your favorite spot, as restaurant workers quit in record numbers due to consistently low wages and poor working conditions, all made worse during the pandemic.
However, as a restaurant owner who raised salaries a long time ago, plus one that offers full benefits and sick leave, I know the solution. We need to do more than say we love our workers. We need to pay them well – and support policies that raise wages, permanently, at all levels. It’s the only way to save our entire industry.
Growing up amid the collapse of Xerox and Kodak, when I returned to upstate New York to open our restaurant, I wanted to help the industry I love avoid a similar fate. The problem is that the basic operating model of much of the restaurant industry has long been broken, supported by greedy corporate chains that make the most profit by paying their employees the least possible.
At the center of the problem is our reliance on tips as wages. To keep our prices artificially low, we require customers to pay our staff with tips. This has created a system prone to abuse.
First, it puts workers at an unsustainable level of risk. If it is a slow shift or a slow day, the workers suffer in their wages. So while workers in fine dining establishments working the main dine-in shift can get by just fine, workers in graveyard shifts on a rainy night can return home after a long day of work almost penniless. It is not fair.
Second, tipping creates huge wage disparities within restaurants. Under New York State law, since tips are part of a waiter’s salary, such tips cannot be shared by household employees, such as dishwashers or line cooks. . That means a restaurant like mine can’t pay everyone a solid base salary and then distribute the tips evenly throughout the house as bonuses because New York law doesn’t allow pooled tips . New York restaurants like ours could offer everyone a better base salary, as well as split tips like they really should be – an extra bonus at the end of a shift, for anyone who has helped make the meal possible – if the law was changed.
But that can’t happen until New York State gets rid of the sub-minimum wage. The idea that some workers should be paid less than the full and fair minimum wage and the balance of their wages paid by customers is a literal legacy of slavery, when white restaurant owners were unwilling to pay newly black workers. freed after emancipation. And forcing workers to depend on customers for their pay results in the worst rates of sexual harassment of any industry in the country. In New York State, pay justice is a gender justice issue since most tipped restaurant workers are women – and not only do they face harassment, but they earn 71% of what their counterparts earn men and are twice as likely to live in poverty as other workers.
This was all bad enough before the pandemic. Now, even as indoor mask requirements expire, restaurant workers are expected to impose vaccination checks on the same customers they rely on to pay their wages. And tips are, unsurprisingly, dropping. No wonder workers quit.
So why didn’t New York end the sub-minimum wage to help restaurants build back better? The simple fact is that a few powerful restaurant owners across our state have lobbied to keep the wage below the minimum, arguing that having to raise wages would destroy their businesses. And yet, many of those same restaurateurs have quietly raised their salaries in recent months to attract talent and save their business right now. Their own actions are proof that their objections to wage increases were always baseless and hollow.
Now the rest of us who have done the right thing and paid good wages all along just want the government to level the playing field for all restaurants and workers and make sure that the positive wage trends we we’re seeing in the industry don’t. evaporate when owners can get away with being greedy again. This is how we can truly protect our industry in the long term and ensure that jobs in the restaurant industry are truly sustainable professional careers.
We opened FLX Wienery in 2014 with two employees. Today, we own and operate 10 concepts and locations, as well as a commissary kitchen, and employ nearly 100 employees. We never took the tip and always paid above minimum wage. We already offer paid vacation, sick leave, health insurance and more to our employees, but we are increasingly limited by New York’s regressive subminimum wage laws, just like our industry and our State.
It’s time to do the right thing for our economy and for all New Yorkers. If Governor Kathy Hochul truly loves restaurant workers and the restaurant industry, it’s time to end subminimum wage, allow tip pooling, and save our state’s restaurants.
Christopher P. Bates is a master sommelier and owner of FLX Hospitality.