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Hearing on raising minimum wage for tipped workers draws 500

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has proposed raising the wage, saying dependence on tips makes workers vulnerable to exploitation.

Supporters of raising the minimum wage for tipped

Supporters of raising the minimum wage for tipped workers demonstrate Friday outside a  public hearing at Farmingdale State College. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

About 500 people attended a contentious, day-long hearing in Farmingdale on Friday about Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposal to raise the minimum wage for waiters, car washers, nail salon workers and others who rely on tips for a portion of their pay.

Employees who earn tips are paid less than the state minimum wage because tips are supposed to bring them up to the minimum. If not, employers must make up the difference.

However, Cuomo said in December that tips, meant to reward good service, have become critical to workers’ livelihood. He said he was concerned about employees being “susceptible to exploitation because they rely on tips to survive.”

At the hearing, proponents of increasing the wage rate said it will lift tipped workers out of poverty, ensure fairness and reduce sexual harassment of female workers.

Opponents said the higher minimum wage will lead to smaller tips, actually reducing some people’s pay, and burden hard-pressed small businesses.

Josselyn Paniagua, who has been waiting tables for one year on Long Island, said she is having trouble making ends meet. "I feel desperate and anxious sometimes because I don’t have enough money to live here and also provide for my family in El Salvador," she said.

Paniagua said she earns between $80 and $120 each day as a waitress and dishwasher at a local restaurant. She works four days a week, between 11 and 12 1/2 hours.

“I want an education but it is impossible with this salary,” Paniagua said. “I deserve to be paid a fair minimum wage.”

Jacqueline Arquer, 29, a bartender and server at the Applebee's in Lindenhurst, said raising the pay of tipped workers will be "detrimental to the restaurant business... it could jeopardize my career."

She said she is worried patrons will tip less or not at all if their waiter or waitress is being paid more.

State Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon, who ran the hearing, repeatedly admonished audience members for interrupting speakers, particularly those testifying in Spanish. After one audience member accused her of barring testimony from opponents of a wage hike, Reardon said, "We aren't talking about removing your tips. We are talking about your salary." 

On Long Island, the state minimum wage increased to $11 per hour on Dec. 31 and will climb annually until it reaches $15. Employers here pay tipped workers a minimum of between $7.50 and $9.15 per hour, depending on their job title. If tips do not bring them to the $11 minimum, employers must make up the difference.

The minimum for tipped employees was last raised in 2015 after Cuomo appointed a wage board to study the issue. In December, he ordered nine hearings to be held across the state about whether the minimum should be raised again; Friday's hearing was the first.

A wage hike for tipped workers is backed by the immigrant advocacy group Make The Road, the New York Nail Salon Workers Association and unions representing retail workers. It is opposed by the state Restaurant Association, Korean-American Nail Salon Association and the Long Island Association business group. 

 Testimony from the hearings will be used to propose regulations. After a public comment period on them, Reardon could raise the wage rate, her spokesman said.

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