Every server has had a difficult customer. One server in Brooklyn today was asked for a drink recommendation by such a patron.
“I have enjoyed the ice coffee very much,” the waiter said.
“I don’t drink coffee,” the customer responded flatly.
So began U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-NY) shift as a server Friday morning.
Schumer did the shift at Hunky Dory – an Asian-American-owned restaurant in Brooklyn – as part of a rally demanding higher wages and better protections for servers around the country.
One Fair Wage – an organization dedicated to raising the minimum wage at the state and federal level – hosted the event that had Schumer take the lunch orders of service workers to show his solidarity.
Schumer voiced his support for the Raise the Wage Act, a bill before Congress that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and eliminate the subminimum wage that many servers earn across the country.
The current minimum wage for tipped employees is $2.13, just enough to cover taxes for waiting staff.
Andrew Rigie, the Executive Director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance – which is a group representing restaurants and bars – said in an Op-Ed in Crain’s New York Business that “if that compensation falls short, we have to make up the difference so no one is earning a sub–minimum wage.”
Hunky Dory’s owner, Claire Sprouse, recently raised the hourly wage to $30 an hour for all staff in the restaurant. Sprouse introduced Schumer to the crowd of service workers, who were decked out in t-shirts reading “Wage Justice is Racial Justice”.
Several service workers in attendance spoke to the intersectional fight they’re facing. One speaker tied low service wage minimums to the legacy of the emancipation of slaves in America, noting restaurants at the time had taken advantage of newly freed peoples to work at rock bottom wages.
“Wage went down to zero, restaurants wanted to pay freed slaves nothing,” said one speaker.
According to an independent analysis conducted by the Economic Policy Institute, the Raise the Wage Actwould increase wages for nearly 32 million Americans, including roughly a third of all Black workers and a quarter of all Latino workers. More than half of those who would benefit would be women.
As one attendee noted, the experience women have as servers force them to endure sexual harassment from customers since their wages are tied to the subjectivity of the customer.
“It should be a simple interaction, but it’s not,” said Jillian, a waitress who traveled from Memphis, Tennessee for the event.
The One Fair Wage organization released a report that said half of all New York workers report that they are considering leaving their restaurant job with the pandemic and nine in ten say they are leaving due to low wages and tips. The report also says that 47 percent of servers have experienced higher levels of sexual harassment since the pandemic began.
Schumer tied the initiative for higher wages to the fight against racism and income inequality.
“[We] have to lessen the gap between rich and poor,” Schumer said. “When you work at subsistence wages you can’t do it… we have to make sure the money flows down to the workers.”
Schumer also said his brief experience as a server opened his eyes to the dynamic at play between server and patron. He said he was nervous mentioning to a customer from Boston that he was a Yankee fan, fearing she would be a Red Sox fan and that he would offend her.
Schumer was presented with 145,000 signatures in support of the Raise the Wage Act to help him bolster support for the bill, after it failed to pass the Senate earlier this year despite passing in the House of Representatives.
Schumer did appear to enjoy his experience as a server but didn’t say whether his Senate colleagues could do the job when asked by PoliticsNY.