Sekou Siby left the war-stricken and politically unstable Ivory Coast in 1996 in search of better opportunities in New York, a place his friends in West Africa described as “easy to live and welcoming”. Upon arriving on a tourist visa, Siby quickly realized that was not the reality. Back home he was a French teacher but when he came to the states, the best job he could find was working as a delivery boy at Ernest and Klein Supermarket on 55th and 6th Ave. where he was hardly getting by on a meager $4.25 per hour.

It was experiences like these that propelled him to his current role as deputy director of Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a national organization fighting to raise the minimum wage for tipped workers in the restaurant industry.

With nearly 15 million employees nationwide, the restaurant industry is one of the largest private sector employers in the nation. Approximately 1.6 million new restaurant jobs will be created by 2029, and in 2019, the restaurant industry is projected to make $863 billion in sales revenue. Despite the growth and profitability of the industry, restaurant jobs provide largely low wages and little access to benefits.

Under current law, restaurant owners are allowed to pay tipped workers a lower cash wage than the overall state minimum wage, as long as tips compensate in bringing total earnings for each worker to the state minimum wage level. The New York State Department of Labor and that State Legislature are currently considering the elimination of the tipped wage.

“Restaurant workers deserve to make the full minimum wage,” Siby said. “We don’t want it to be $8, $9 or $10 because everyone should get the minimum wage period,” he said speaking on behalf of his organization. This is part of ROC United’s One Fair Wage campaign which supports making restaurant workers financially independent so that they can have a better quality of life.

Organizations like the National Restaurant Association have publicly expressed opposition to minimum wage increases saying it would “cripple small-and family-owned businesses.”

“Mandating a $15 per hour starting wage across the country fails to recognize the simple economic reality that not all communities are the same,” said Shannon Meade, National Restaurant Association, Vice President of Public Policy and Legal Advocacy. “What might be right for California or New York would have stifling impacts to restaurants and other small businesses in areas where workers do not face the cost of living they do in major cities.” 

Currently seven states—California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Nevada, Montana and Minnesota pay tipped workers and non-tipped workers the same minimum wage.

Meade favors the tip credit because it allows tipped employees to earn far more than the minimum wage, while helping to reduce labor costs for restaurants and others that operate on thin profit margins due to low employee turnover.

When Governor Andrew Cuomo first announced his decision to study eliminating the tipped minimum wage in 2017, it was geared toward restaurant workers making low wages, many of whom rely on tips to make up the majority of their pay.

However, Governor Cuomo excluded restaurant workers from receiving minimum wage increases.

“I am directing @NYSLabor to eliminate the subminimum wage for many tipped workers statewide, including nail salon workers, hairdressers, valet parking attendants, and car wash workers,” Governor Cuomo tweeted from his Twitter account. “The order impacts over 70,000 tipped employees and will be phased in by the end of 2020.”

ROC intends to continue to fight to eliminate the tipped minimum wage despite Cuomo’s action.

“I think pressure from operators and owners who believe ending the tip credit would cost jobs is the issue,” Siby said.

This fight became even more important to Siby when he started a new job as a prep cook at Windows on the Wall, a non-profit in Manhattan.

“A friend of mine swapped shifts with me so I worked his shift and he worked my shift on Sept. 11; and he didn’t make it, Siby said. “We lost our jobs, we lost our friends and we decided to organize for restaurant workers.”

As a member of the union ROC New York, Siby worked by mobilizing restaurant workers through job trainings and placements, held meetings with like-minded employers who supported high wages and safe working conditions and by communicating with consumers to express their personal and financial support by airing their concerns at City Hall.

Siby said that while some people don’t want minimum wage increases for restaurant workers because they think it will cripple the industry, there is no research that supports that.

“It’s important to show employers that they can still make a profit while treating workers well,” Siby said.

A 2019 study by the National Employment Law Project found that between 2013 and 2018 New York City saw a strong economic expansion of the restaurant industry, outpacing national growth in employment, annual wages and the number of both limited-and full-service restaurant establishments.

ROC United has 10 local chapters in the U.S. Siby’s work includes lobbying for the Raise the Wage Act in D.C. and supporting campaigns that call for fair wages and the fair treatment of workers.

“In a city like New York, $15 is really not enough until we get to the point where there’s a livable wage where people can take care of their families,” Siby said. “There are still people who have full-time jobs and receive government subsidies.”

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