We need the Council to courageously provide relief for all stakeholders—workers, employers and consumers—together. 

Russell Jackson
The author

I have led restaurants for over 40 years and in the last ten years, built a beautiful community at Reverence in Harlem. Now with the pandemic, Reverence, like so many thousands of other New York City eateries, is struggling to survive—and even worse, my employees, and hundreds of thousands of restaurant workers citywide, are struggling to feed their children and keep a roof over their head. 

I applaud the good intentions of Governor Cuomo for allowing for 25 percent indoor dining and also applaud the New York City Council for advancing legislation this week to allow employers to add surcharges to our bills to bring in extra revenue. But I ask that both Governor Cuomo and the New York City Council amend their proposed policies to also protect hundreds of thousands of restaurant workers struggling to survive. We need the Council to courageously provide relief for all stakeholders—workers, employers and consumers—together. 

In August, I came together with hundreds of employees and workers to call on Cuomo to do four things: end the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers, which is a legacy of slavery that perpetuates racism and sexual harassment and has become untenable now that tips are down 50-75 percent; legalize tip sharing in New York, as in every other state, so that tips received on top of a full minimum wage can be legally shared amongst all workers; payroll tax relief for struggling restaurants; and the establishment of a five percent “safe and just re-opening” surcharge that restaurants could pass on to customers if the restaurants embraced these sorts of high-road, living wage practices. 

We put these policies together, because it will be essential to couple indoor dining and a restaurant surcharge with a full minimum wage for tipped workers—especially for restaurant workers, who are being asked to enforce the 25 percent indoor dining and mask rules with the very same customers they need to get tips from in order to earn the minimum wage. As a result of this enforcement, they are getting harassed in exchange for a subminimum wage with severely diminished tips.  We need to guarantee these workers a full minimum wage if we’re going to impose a surcharge and have them enforce the social distancing rules we need to protect our City.

This week, the City Council is re-introducing an old bill to allow surcharges (which are allowed everywhere else in the state), with no connection to protecting workers. New York City should absolutely allow restaurants to add a surcharge so they can be guaranteed additional revenue in these challenging times, but then struggling workers also need to be guaranteed a full wage when tips are so uncertain right now. So we need both together- requiring restaurants that add the surcharge to pay workers a full minimum wage with tips on top- not a surcharge without a full minimum wage.

Both the governor and the City Council claim they want New York to lead. Instead of enacting employer-friendly policies with no worker protections, we have the chance to be the first state to act on Vice President Biden’s endorsement of One Fair Wage – a full minimum wage with tips on top—and allow for tip sharing and surcharges for restaurants who pay that full wage. 

The governor and the Council are correct that restaurants need to be safe for diners. But they also need to be safe for restaurant workers. Black and brown restaurant workers do not need benefits that go to ownership without guaranteeing any benefit to workers. What they do need—what they have long deserved—is a government that respects their humanity and dignity and ensures that employers like me pay them fairly for their hard work. If New York is the progressive leader it wants to be, elected leadership needs to make that happen.

Russell Jackson is the owner and chef at Reverence in Harlem.