Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's life has changed drastically since she won her congressional primary last year, but on Friday the former bartender and server made it clear that she still knows her way around a restaurant — especially when it's for a good cause.
Surrounded by service industry workers and her constituents, Ocasio-Cortez poured drinks and waited tables in an effort to raise support for upping the federal minimum wage for tipped workers at an event organized by Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United in Jackson Heights, Queens.
"The federal tipped minimum wage is $2.13 an hour. That is unacceptable," the New York congresswoman told reporters. "Any job that pays $2.13 an hour is not a job, it’s indentured servitude."
By now, many people know Ocasio-Cortez’s superhero-like origins: Before her historic primary upset last summer, the 29-year-old worked as a waitress and bartender for four years in Manhattan. The congresswoman often speaks proudly of her experience as a restaurant worker, which she says helped shape the values and ideals that eventually led her to Capitol Hill — including making economic justice a core part of her platform.
"We shouldn't have to work an 80-hour week so our kids can have a meal at lunch," she said at The Queensboro, a restaurant that employs mostly Jackson Heights residents. She added, "We need to make sure that people are paid enough to live, period. That's what we're pushing for."
New York is one of 43 states that still allow employers to pay tipped workers a wage below the federal minimum wage. Out of those, 17 states still allow a $2.13-an-hour wage — a figure that has not gone up since 1996. In 2018, Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked the state's Department of Labor to review ending the practice in New York, but the Democrat has not taken executive action since then.
Advocates say that the current two-tiered system breeds inequality, particularly for women and people of color, who make up the majority of the service industry. "Today, 70% of tipped workers are women. They are women who work at IHOP, Applebee's, and Olive Garden. They are women who work at nail salons or as massage therapists and hairdressers," Saru Jayaraman, cofounder and co-director of ROC United, told reporters. According to the One Fair Wage campaign, servers are 2.6 times more likely to live in poverty than the overall workforce. The sub-minimum tipped wage system also often makes workers more vulnerable to sexual harassment, due to the reliance on tips for the majority of their income.
Jayaraman and the workers at Friday's event hope that the tide is shifting. Ocasio-Cortez is currently a co-sponsor of the Raise the Wage Act and the BE HEARD Act in the U.S. House. Both measures call for raising the federal sub-minimum wage for tipped workers from $2.13 to the full minimum wage. "It is not enough to just be a land of freedom; we need to be a land of economic freedom," Ocasio-Cortez said. "It's so important that we have a $15 national minimum wage."
Workers such as Zulma Lowery, a 41-year-old chef who has worked in the restaurant industry for 12 years, believe that service industry workers who rely on tips deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect as those who don't. "There is a lot of us who work on tips only. AOC being here, ROC United being here, all of the employees being here — that's a powerful thing," Lowery told Refinery29. "We should all keep fighting for our wages."