A couple big industry policy debates are winding their way through the halls of New York government. Last week, public hearings began for legislation to ban plastic straws in NYC. Just a few days later, the state government also began hearings on a controversial plan to eliminate the “tip credit” or “subminimum wage” for service industry employees.
Stops Signs for Straws
On June 21, City Hall Chambers were packed for a Consumer Affairs hearing hearing regarding a proposed straw ban. Int. 823, proposed by Council Member Rafael Espinal, would prohibit plastic straws at restaurants, bars and other businesses, as well as plastic stirrers used for for coffee.
The legislation drew hundreds of supporters including the powerful New York City Hospitality Alliance and the De Blasio administration. “Single-use plastic straws and stirrers are a pernicious problem and source of pollution,” testified Bill Mark Chambers, head of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. “They are among the most common types of litter worldwide,” he said — estimating that New Yorkers use and dispose of a whopping 13 million straws each day.”
The small group present to question the ban was comprised largely of individual with disabilities and disabilities advocacy groups. These speakers explained that for many disabled citizens alternatives such as paper straws present logistical problems. However, their lobbying was not geared towards the general preservation of plastic; rather, they pushed for a change in wording to accommodate their needs. The council members appeared receptive and promised to look into the edits.
Chad Arnholt, co-founder of Tin Roof Consulting and a long time sustainability activist considered the afternoon success. “The impression that I got is that I thought it will pass. Aside from the obvious concerns raised by the advocates, it was an overall positive vibe,” he said. “The restaurants and the consumers both showed up to support the bill.”
Espinal explained that he is still signing up more supporters on the Council. When those roles are filled, the bis will head for a vote before the full body.
Maximum Debate About Minimum Wage
The scene was far more divisive a few days later when the Department of Labor (DOL) held public hearings began about the potential elimination of the tip credit or subminimum wage for service industry workers. Currently, workers in most of NY state make a minus wage of $7.50, $8.60 in most cases (with a scheduled increase to $10) in NYC. Although that hourly rate is below the $15 statewide minimum, the practice is allowed in the hospitality field because, by law, tips must account for the difference at a minimum (hence the tip “credit.”)
However, at the urging of Governor Andrew Cuomo, NY is holding hearings on a plan that would raise front of house workers to the $15 hourly point. Critics believe that the shift would effectively eliminate tipping and lower net pay. Proponents counter that the tipping system, itself, is inherently problematic and warrants no defense.
The high-profile service employee advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United has been waging a campaign against the “subminimum wage” for years. The organization contends that a reliance on gratuities is responsible for many industry ills including sexual harassment, lack of maternity leave, discriminatory workplaces, and an overall lower standard of living.
“Governor Cuomo recognizes that the subminimum wage system directly correlates with higher rates of sexual harassment. Eliminating it has the potential to cut those rates in half in the restaurant industry — the U.S. industry with the highest rate of sexual harassment claims — as it has done in California, which doesn’t have a subminimum tipped wage. No other intervention has this potential,” said Saru Jayaraman, President of Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United in a statement. “We look forward to working with the Governor to achieve One Fair Wage in New York State.”
Other advocates of the measure at the hearing included Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards in Employment (RAISE) which includes Dirty Candy’s Amanda Cohen and Gjelina’s Shelley Armistead; women’s rights group UltraViolet, and umbrella org One Fair Wage NY.
On the other side of the aisle, are workers and operators who posit that the increase would result in economic disaster for small business owners and reduce both the take-home pay and job opportunities for workers.
“Business owners and employees will face a bummer summer thanks to the consequences of new wage mandates, said Employment Policies Institute (EPI) Managing Director Michael Statesman in a statement. “Empirical evidence shows that wage hikes reduce workplace opportunities, either by reducing the number of jobs by forcing businesses to close.”
NYC Hospitality Alliance, which represents restaurant and bar owners, the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, Flushing Workers Center, Justice Will Be Served,and a group of 16 female Harlem restaurant owners all logged their opposition as well.
California, Alaska, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, and Nevada have all enacted similar measures already. Not surprisingly, activists on both sides of the question each seized upon these precedents as evidence of their own argument’s validity.
The recent hearing in NYC drew hundreds of concerned citizens, but the decision will rest with the powers that be. The DOL will next review the testimony and then weigh in with a formal recommendation. The ultimate decision will be made by the pols in Albany.