Ocasio-Cortez: $2.13 minimum wage for tipped workers is 'indentured servitude'

The New York congresswoman returned to a restaurant in Queens on Friday, seeking to highlight the plight of workers she knows

As she returned to New York to waitress and bartend for the first time since being elected to Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said the federal tipped minimum wage was tantamount to “indentured servitude”.

Before she rose to national fame as the representative for New York’s 14th congressional district, the 29-year-old from the Bronx worked at a Mexican restaurant in Manhattan. On Friday she went back to waiting tables and mixing drinks, in support of One Fair Wage, a policy that would entitle tipped workers to a minimum wage of $15 an hour plus tips.

The federal minimum wage for restaurant and bar workers and other tip-reliant jobs such as nail salon workers is just $2.13 an hour. Although the minimum wage in New York is $15 an hour, this does not apply to tipped workers, who can be paid as little as $7.50.

Dressed in an apron and standing behind the bar of The Queensboro restaurant in Jackson Heights, Ocasio-Cortez told cheering workers and small business owners the current rate was “unacceptable”.

“Any job that pays $2.13 an hour is not a job, it’s indentured servitude,” she said, to loud applause. “All labour has dignity. And the way that we give labour dignity is by paying people the respect and the value that they are worth at minimum. We have to make one fair wage and we have to raise the national minimum wage to $15 an hour, nothing less.”

In cities such as New York, San Francisco and Chicago, she said, the minimum wage should be higher, to support the “runaway costs” of living.

“Because when our rents are running away, when our food costs are running away, in dense cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, we need to make sure that people are paid enough to live, period,” she said.

Ocasio-Cortez also described how working in the industry for four years, first as a hostess at an Irish pub while in high school and working at restaurants after college, left her dependent on tips and forced to make compromises.

“I remember working in restaurants,” she said, “and, you know, you would have someone say something extremely inappropriate to you, or you’d have someone touch you, and the thing is it would be the 28th of the month, the 29th of the month. And the first of the next month was rolling right around and you have a rent cheque to pay.

“And so you are more likely to stand up for yourself and to reject sexual harassment on the 15th of the month, or maybe the 10th of the month, when you could pick up an extra shift to make up for telling that guy to go buzz off.”

She said women are particularly vulnerable: “As a woman you allow yourself, we allow ourselves, to be more vulnerable than any person should ever be in the United States of America because of economic desperation.”

I was nervous that I may have lost my touch - still got it! That muscle memory doesn’t quit 😉

Now let’s pass #RaiseTheWage and get $15 an hour minimum for every worker in America. pic.twitter.com/FR0ARUB7bd

— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) May 31, 2019

Before her speech she took orders from excited guests, speaking English and Spanish, and served pizzas before going behind a bar for the first time since she took office. After successfully making her first margarita – her vigorous shaking was met with cheers – she proclaimed: “I’ve still got it! I was scared.”

Larry Obregon, a bartender at the restaurant, sang Ocasio-Cortez’s praises.

“She’s great, she’s amazing at the bar,” he said. “She made a margarita, she did a couple of mixed drinks with vodka and other spirits. Obviously, it backs up her background, she used to be in the service industry as well, so she knows exactly what she’s talking about.”

Bartenders Serena Thomas, 27, and Nikolas Vagenas, 24, who were served eggplant and mushroom pizzas by Ocasio-Cortez, rated the congresswoman’s customer service.

Thomas said: “It was great, she still knows how to do it.”

Vagenas: “Yeah she’s still got it, 100%”


Miranda Bryant in Queens, New York

The GuardianTramp

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