In more than a decade slinging drinks, bartender Autumn Alston has depended on tips to earn a living, leading to an often-inconsistent income from some customers who tip a lot, some who stiff and a few who make cringe-inducing suggestions.
"There was a time when a guy was like, 'If you pull your shirt down a little more you'd probably get more money,'" said the 32-year-old mother of two from the Bronx. "This is what you go through working in this industry."
Alston and other service workers who depend on tips are at the center of New York State's latest minimum-wage debate — whether to raise the "below minimum-wage."
Like most states, New York allows restaurants and hotels to pay servers, busboys and other tipped workers less than minimum wage — $5 per hour instead of $8.75 — as long as they make up the difference with tips.
Now New York is considering raising the sub-minimum to $7 an hour to decrease the reliance on tips. But restaurant owners are fighting the proposal, which they say would lead to higher menu prices and hurt the very employees it's designed to help.
Seven states including California have eliminated their tipped wage altogether, requiring all tipped workers to be paid the minimum wage before tips.
Supporters and opponents of higher wages see the tipped wage debate as a preview of a larger legislative fight over the standard minimum wage. In 2013, New York lawmakers voted to gradually raise it from $7.25 to $9 per hour at the end of 2015. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and other supporters now want lawmakers to raise it to $10.10 and authorize local governments to set it even higher. On Sunday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo reiterated his support for the overall minimum wage to increase to $10.50.
New York's tipped wage hasn't gone up since 2011. It's up to Cuomo's labor commissioner to decide whether to raise it again, and a state wage board was tasked with coming up with a recommendation. This month the board voted against eliminating the wage entirely and is expected to vote on the increase to $7 in the coming weeks.
Restaurant owners argue a hike would dramatically increase labor costs, putting some out of business.
Dominic Ruzzine runs the Rock Bottom Eatery outside of Buffalo — home to what one local publication calls the "Best Burger in Buffalo." He said significantly higher wages would — over time — erode the American tipping tradition, prompting diners to tip less, knowing their server makes more in an hourly wage.
"In Canada, they make more, they tip less," he said. "It's ingrained in us, tip 15, 20 percent. That's how it works."
Those who work in the industry say tips can be hit-or-miss. Some days bring in more tips than others, and sometimes they're required to split the tip take with other employees.
Marco Soto, 43, from Ecuador, has worked as a waiter, a bar runner, a bus boy and a food deliveryman. Through a translator, he said he never got all the tips he was due. For example, when he worked making deliveries and the bill was paid by credit card, he didn't always get those tips.
"Sometimes I used to work five or six shifts. I used to go home with $200 a week," he said.
The federal tipped wage of $2.13 per hour hasn't changed in 20 years. A White House report this year recommended raising that wage, and noted that women make up nearly three-quarters of tipped workers. Restaurant servers are almost three times as likely to experience poverty as workers in other industries.
The median wage for New York's 133,550 waiters and waitresses is $19,103.
Opponents of a higher tipped wage say enforcement of labor laws is a better way to ensure employers are following the law, which requires employers to make up the difference if an employee's tips don't add up to the minimum wage.
Heather Briccetti, president of the Business Council of New York State, serves on the state wage board and said raising the tipped wage too high would significantly disrupt restaurants' finances. She urges caution.
"The average wage in many of these establishments is already well above the minimum wage," she said. "Tipped wage workers have always operated under a different structure (than other workers). A dramatic increase would certainly harm employment in the industry."
Klepper contributed from Albany.