Chef José Andrés Credit: Blair Getz Mezibov

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Chef José Andrés joined other New York restaurant owners in signing his name to a letter urging Governor Andrew Cuomo to eliminate the tipped minimum wage, along with other policies they feel would help the hospitality industry and its workers “survive this crisis and thrive.” 

Most states are permitted to pay tipped workers a lower base wage, so long as the tips they earn carry them over the standard minimum wage. Otherwise the employer is on the hook for the difference. In D.C., for example, restaurants and bars can currently pay bartenders and servers $5 instead of $15. 

A 2018 ballot measure that sought to gradually eliminate the tipped minimum wage in the District ignited an emotional and expensive battle. Voters passed Initiative 77, but the D.C. Council overturned it. The same thing happened in Maine in 2017. 

Opponents of Initiative 77 said the measure would necessitate adding a mandatory service charge to bills or raising food and drink prices significantly to shoulder increased payroll costs. Others feared staff cuts and closures. Initiative 77 didn’t outlaw tipping, but tipped workers who opposed it worried diners would not tip at the same rate if they saw a service charge on the bill or if prices increased, thus reducing their take-home pay.

Restaurant Opportunities Center United, which has been fighting for “One Fair Wage” across the country, got the measure on the ballot in D.C. Their stated goal was to elevate a sector of workers they say earn poverty wages, adding that tipping and a two-tier wage system disadvantage women and people of color and are prime causes of sexual harassment. 

The One Fair Wage campaign recently published a report detailing ways customers are mistreating tipped workers during the pandemic. They say they surveyed roughly 1,600 people in D.C., New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. Some said patrons are asking them to pull down their masks so their looks can be assessed to inform tip amounts.

A press release suggests the report is the impetus behind the call to action to Cuomo. The letter Andrés, Danny Meyer, David Chang, and other hospitality heavy hitters signed is on One Fair Wage letterhead. Owners of smaller mom-and-pop restaurants also added their names.

The chef and humanitarian’s signature feels a little like an about face. Early in the fight over Initiative 77, Andrés issued a statement to City Paper encouraging “District of Columbia residents to vote NO on Initiative 77 and instead help work towards a more equitable solution that supports both restaurant servers and cooks who serve their guests proudly every day.”

His greatest qualm was that eliminating the tipped minimum wage wouldn’t do enough to address the pay disparity that exists between front-of-house employees like servers and bartenders and back-of-house employees like line cooks and dishwashers.

“Our 25-year operating experience, in both polished casual and fine dining restaurants, consistently shows that servers earn appreciably more than back-of-house positions, and well above the minimum wage when you combine the tipped wage from employers and total tips from guests,” Andrés told City Paper in 2018. “As it stands, the system is designed to allow servers to earn as much as 100% or more per hour than cooks. Increasing the tipped minimum wage will only make the current wage disparity more extreme and place downward pressure on small business margins.”

He wants Washingtonians to know he hasn’t been against minimum wage increases writ large. “Many years ago when the mayor announced the minimum wage was going up in three years, I announced we were going up in minimum wage three years early,” Andrés says. “I was very happy I went ahead of the mayor. I got very hurt when I became the poster boy [against 77]. The vast majority of people supporting it in the District were people from California. We need pragmatism. We need logic. We need to bring everybody [together] and come up with something we can all live with.”

Andrés is still hungry for a new labor model that will put more money in the pockets of kitchen laborers, many of whom are immigrants. The letter he signed cites a law Congress passed in 2018 that allows restaurant owners who directly pay all of their employees the full minimum wage to share tips with kitchen staff.

Overall, the ThinkFoodGroup restaurateur believes what restaurant owners are calling for in New York is more well rounded. In addition to eliminating the tipped minimum wage, they also want “tip-sharing, a modest recovery surcharge for restaurants that follow a gold-standard of virus-related precautions, and payroll tax relief.” 

“Life is complicated and nuances are important,” Andrés says. “I’m supporting this because I have big restaurants in New York and a lot of restaurants in D.C. This new proposal in New York is a much more forward-thinking pragmatic response.”

He also acknowledges the findings of the One Fair Wage report. “I don’t want to believe that everybody that tips wants something from somebody,” he says. “I understand it may happen in some places. That’s what we need to be careful of. We need to defend those people and their rights.”

So will Andrés still pay tipped workers a sub-minimum wage when his D.C. restaurants like Zaytina, Jaleo, Oyamel, and China Chilcano fully reopen for service after the pandemic? 

“I need to understand the consequences of every movement,” he says. “I need to make sure it creates equality between everybody working in restaurants. I need to understand what happens if prices go up. Restaurants are not cash cows. We need to be careful.” 

One of his chief concerns is what would happen if D.C. acts before Maryland and Virginia. He fears restaurant owners will move their businesses across the D.C. border and workers will follow. “Many workers prefer to get the tips working less hours,” Andrés says. “It’s the reality. I didn’t invent the system.” 

If Democrats take back the Senate, the Raise The Wage Act has greater potential to become law. The piece of legislation, which was already approved by the House of Representatives, raises the federal minimum wage to $15 over the next couple of years and seeks to abolish the tipped minimum wage. “Do we do it in one restaurant or one restaurant group or do we do it through Congress at the top?” Andrés asks.