Fight, don’t starve: NYC restaurant workers threaten mass exodus amid Omicron unless paid livable wage

With the Omicron variant infecting record numbers in New York City, restaurant staff and elected officials warn of severe dining interruptions as many workers are projected not to return to the industry in 2022.

“Either Governor Hochul raises the wage or you’re gonna see a mass exodus the likes of which we have never seen, and this industry will not be able to reopen,” co-founder of One Fair Wage Saru Jayaraman said on Dec. 21.

Dozens of restaurant workers, elected officials, and business owners convened outside the East Village’s La Palapa restaurant on Tuesday afternoon to decry the treatment of those in the food industry amid a global pandemic that is undergoing a spike in infections. From verbal and physical abuse that have even left some hospitalized, table servers and delivery drivers say they have not only seen it all while working for subminimum wage, but the misconduct has also only grown more prevalent throughout the course of COVID-19’s devastation. When workers attempt to enforce mask mandates and vaccination protocols, they have been met with violent reactions from those who disagree with the city’s guidelines.

Workers say they will continue, but only for fair wages. Photo by Dean Moses

It is with this in mind the group put forward an ultimatum: either workers are provided with a livable wage in addition to tips, or they will leave the business in search of greener pastures elsewhere.

“How many more assaults on women in this industry do we have to see before we give them a full minimum wage. They don’t have to put up with everything to get those tips. I’m going to tell you one last thing: how many more years? Zero,” Jayaraman said.

Saru Jayaraman. Photo by Dean Moses

As Jayaraman highlighted women in the industry, so did Congressmember Carolyn Maloney, who shared that she is concerned for the state of the dining market in the coming months. Reiterating that the bill has been passed in Congress but has failed to make it through the Senate, Maloney underscored that women are the workers who suffer the most due to this failure.

“The COVID pandemic has been especially hard on women because the US economy has always been historically hard on women,” she said, adding, “I was a waitress, so I know firsthand. The insult, the harassment, and the really hard, hard work and long hours. This is a cause that we all need to get behind. I will join my voice in calling Governor Hochul to act with an executive order on this. I look forward to working with you to find solutions to end subminimum wages. Everyone deserves a fair wage.”

Congress member Carolyn Maloney joined in asking for the governor’s aid. Photo by Dean Moses

The conference occurred just moments before Mayor Bill de Blasio announced additional actions being implemented to improve the safety, health and working conditions for delivery workers—the ones who were outside working while the city quarantined.

“Delivery workers have served as essential workers throughout the pandemic and we’re grateful for their contributions to New York City’s economy,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio in a press release. “These increased safety measures and labor protections are key to helping delivery workers recover and thrive.”

Holding signs, workers say they need to provide for their families. Photo by Dean Moses

These measures will affect 65,000 delivery workers, especially delivery app companies, and will enforce labor standards that include regulating delivery distance, minimum pay standards, and bathroom access.

As thousands wait on COVID testing lines all over the city and restrictions begin to fall back into place due to surging positive cases, only time will tell where the restaurant industry and its workers will stand in 2022.

amNewYork Metro reached out to the governor’s office for comment, and is awaiting a response.

One Fair Wage joined Congress member Carolyn Maloney to demand an end to subminimum wage. Photo by Dean Moses