Grueling work, insufficient pay

Tips Make The Difference

Travis Howse’s ability to pay his rent depends on the weather, which days of the week he works and the whims of his customers.

Howse, 27, makes $7.50 an hour slinging drinks at the Cannibal Liquor House on East 29th Street. But because most of his income comes from tips, how much he takes home fluctuates wildly. He can walk away with anywhere between $200 and $900 per week with tips, unless the weather is bad.

“The week we had a snowstorm, there went $200 out of my paycheck,” he said.

Bartender Travis Howse (Katie Warren)

Howse, who works in the Kips Bay neighborhood of Manhattan, says the wage increases won’t affect him that much. He’ll still make the bulk of his income in tips. But in his view, while the practice of tipping is a blessing, it can also be a curse.

“I have a very love-hate relationship with tipping,” said Howse. “It creates a very interesting interaction with customers because it’s a way for them to participate in the process and more directly thank me. But I’ve had people try to punish me with it, try to hold it over me. It can create a very strange dynamic. It can be really disgusting.”

He does have one positive job perk. Howse eats as many meals as he can at work—and that leaves more cash in his pocket.

“I eat at least half of my meals at the restaurant,” he said. The restaurant charges workers $2 per day and offers large servings of inexpensive dishes such as rice, pasta, chicken or hamburgers. Howse’s shifts are often so long that he usually ends up eating two meals there.

Howse can usually count on bringing home just under $2,000 per month to cover his living expenses. He pays $950 in rent for a room in Harlem, $200 for his internet, phone bill and other utilities, about $400 on groceries, and $32 for a weekly MetroCard.

Whatever is left over, around $200-300 per month, goes toward drinks and eating out with friends, which doesn’t leave much for savings.

“It’s terrible,” said Howse, who moved to the city from California three years ago. “I haven’t saved anything since moving to New York.”

Although Howse isn’t convinced that the minimum wage hike would dramatically alter his income since he survives mostly on tips, he still thinks it would make a difference.

“It would be an extra $80 a week, so that’s not nothing,” he said. “But I definitely don’t think it’s keeping up with inflation.”   — Katie Warren

There’s nothing glamorous about the work of food runners, who do everything from keeping customers happy to facilitating communication between servers and kitchen staff.  But that’s not how 21-year-old food runner Aaron Santana, who works at the upscale Standard Grill in the Meatpacking District, looks at it. “The best part of my job, honestly, is working in this environment,” he says on a quick break.

Although the job can be stressful, he says the tight-knit staff and the restaurant’s artsy, high-flying clientele makes up for it. Still, it’s not an easy gig. Santana says he sometimes works, voluntarily, up to 12 hours a day. He’s not complaining though.  He’s happy with his paycheck and says the extra bump from the minimum wage hike is helping him save money to actually go on a vacation somewhere outside the city.— Liz Tung

Marcia Duncan, a cashier at the Key Food in the Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, works for the minimum wage and has a 6-month-old daughter. After she became pregnant, she had to stop going to school at the Brooklyn Adult Learning Center.

She spends 75 percent of her income on her daughter. Luckily, she found a woman to take care of her daughter for only $20 a week. If she had to pay a more typical salary, most of her hourly income would have gone to the caretaker. Duncan hopes to go back to school and continue her work in computer systems. The increased minimum wage will help Duncan, maybe, splurge a little on herself too. — Imad Khan

Isaac Mettey emigrated from Ghana 10 years ago to pursue the American Dream. For the last two years, he’s been earning the minimum wage making pizzas at a Little Caesars in Washington Heights. He doesn’t earn tips.

In January, Mettey, who is in his 40s, saw his hourly wage jump from $8 to $12.50.

But even though he now earns $4.50 more per hour,  he says it doesn’t make much of a difference in his day to day life. He still doesn’t earn enough to cover costs and save any money.

If he earned more, he says he would buy a ticket to go back to Ghana to visit his parents. — Katie Warren

Jamel White has one baby and another on the way, and he makes $12.50 an hour. He lives at home with his parents and works at Organic Avenue, a boutique Manhattan health food store that serves pre-made organic meals. White is studying to become an electrical engineer and is working to pay his tuition.

He’s not used to making such little money and feels it’s never enough. He supports raising the minimum wage but thinks it won’t have much of an impact on people’s lives unless prices stop going up too. “Nothing’s really changing,” he said. “It’s just for the hype, like – oh we’re making $15 dollars an hour. It’s not really changing anything.” –Alix Langone

Three times a week, Sasha Stjarne takes a 20-minute walk from her parents’ apartment in the East Village to her job downtown. In nice weather, this feels like a luxury. Other times, it feels like a punishment. “I live with my parents to save money,” Stjarne said. “At 27-years- old, that’s not a cute thing or something you want to tell people, but here it is.” Stjarne, a graduate student at Manhattan College, works several shifts a week as a hostess at Doma Na Rohu, a German wine bar in the West Village, earning $11 an hour. She’s trying to save cash to move out after she graduates. “It’ll double my rent, but it’ll triple my sanity,” said Stjarne. “Who wants to date someone who makes $11 an hour and lives with her parents?” — Emily Ziemski

Back in Venezuela, she was a radio journalist. When she came here in 2016, she planned to continue her career here. Instead, she earns $8 an hour making smoothies in Washington Heights. Ivana, 25, who did not want to give her last name, earns about $1,200 per month and sends $200-$400 of that to her family back home. Her rent in a shared Bronx apartment runs $600, a MetroCard sets her back $128 and food, another $150. That leaves her  $300-$500, depending on how much she sent home.   — Katie Warren

As the weather gets warmer, people flock to Chinatown’s Eggloo for one of its signature Hong Kong egg waffles with ice cream. One of the waffle makers, Choung woo Hyun, 21, who was born in South Korea and moved here as a toddler, says he makes the minimum wage.  Hyun doesn’t complain about the wages since he still lives with his parents in Queens. On an average summer day, he says, he makes around 200-300 waffles. Hyun will trade in the waffle maker for college textbooks this fall. — John Friia

Jose Camacho, 32, has been working at the same job at the market in Williamsburg since he left Mexico 12 years ago. Today he sits on a green stand, eating a banana during a break from his duties: unpacking fruit, arranging fruit and managing the cash register. He says he enjoys carefully placing the fruit on the stand and making them look attractive. He works off the books – no benefits – and makes $600 a week. His day is tough and long: He wakes up at 5:40 a.m., opens the market at 6 a.m. and works until 6 p.m. — Miamichelle Abad

A Little Extra Goes A Long Way

Sandra Cortez starts her 10-hour shift at Metro Star Coffee Shop in Jackson Heights at 6 a.m. Cortez, 22, one of about two million minimum wage workers in New York State earns $11 an hour, working six days a week.  “The key is to be organized and plan out what you’ll do with your earnings,” said Cortez.   Each week, Cortez, who emigrated from Honduras when she was 19-years-old, says she spends $15 for laundry and $30 for groceries—and sends about $20 or $30 to her mother in Honduras. Every month, she also pays $400 for her share of the rent.  The extra cash from hiked wages will help a little, she says.   “I can go out more and buy whatever I want,” she said. — Manolo Morales

Been There, Done That

Vijay Alimchandani, 56, the manager at La Quinta Inn on the Upper West Side, remembers what it’s like to get by on minimum wage with a family to support. “For us, McDonald’s was a treat,” Alimchandani recalled. “No summer camps. And going out to the movies? Forget it.” Today, Alimchandani manages 22 employees at the small hotel, which is part of a larger franchise. “Fifteen dollars minimum wage, I’m all for it. Eleven dollars is not enough to survive in New York City,” Alimchandani said. “It’s hard. I know, I’ve been there.” — Claire Molloy

Hoping To Save For School

As a cashier at American NY Bagel in Jackson Heights, Queens, Sarah Camano’s hourly wage rose from $9 to $10.50 when the new law took effect at the end of 2016.The 22-year-old also brings home about $100 extra in tips most weeks. While Camano’s work week is kept under 40 hours (to avoid paying her overtime), she says she makes enough to cover her share of the rent. She also puts some money aside each week to pay, hopefully, for another semester of study. — Kevin Breuninger

More Study Time?

Nicole Rodriguez, 19, a fast-food worker at McDonald’s, works 40 hours a week.  She’s also a full-time student at Borough of Manhattan Community College. She says she finds it hard to pay her phone bill, transportation costs, and help her parents out on the $12 an hour that she now earns. However, she hopes when she starts to make $15 an hour that she will be able to reduce her working hours, give a bit more of her wages to her parents and devote more time to her studies. — Kayla Rivera

The Culinary Pay Gap

As the popularity of food jobs skyrocket – thanks in part to cooking shows and social media posts featuring culinary delights – so does enrollment in culinary schools.  The Institute of Culinary Education in New York City says its enrollment has increased by 20 percent every year since 2011.

However, for culinary school graduates, the cost of a degree doesn’t necessarily add up to bigger bucks once they get out of school and into kitchens. The new $15 minimum wage, rolling into full effect by the end of 2019, is the biggest jump in the state’s history, and it is making waves in the hospitality industry. But even with the promise of higher wages, many culinary graduates are only cautiously optimistic that this new law will translate into more money in their pockets. The average culinary degree costs around $45,000, but some starting wages  are still $5 under the new minimum wage requirements. The Department of Labor requires that by the end of 2017, minimum wages must be $13 for companies with more than 11 employees.

“Chefs and restaurateurs will call us up and ask for our top graduates, but only offer $10 an hour,” said Katie Lane, a career services executive at The Institute of Culinary Education. “It’s pathetic because I know these big companies have the money, and pretty soon that kind of pay will be illegal.”

Lane says almost all of the calls she receives asking for cheap labor are from companies that have more than 11 employees. “The biggest excuse we get is that it’ll be a good experience for the student or give them exposure,” Lane said. Amid the stiff competition in the culinary world, she said, recent graduates don’t feel like they have a choice and must work for any amount of money to “make it” in the industry.

However, this isn’t a new theme for the professional culinary industry. In 2015, Le Cordon Bleu cooking school reached a $40 million settlement in a class action lawsuit filed by students claiming they did not get their money’s worth from the institution. The suit said that graduates of Le Cordon Bleu were not getting the kinds of well-paying jobs that were promised by the school.

Even with the higher minimum wage, many of the city’s best-known restaurants are paying less than the law requires. Among the top eight hospitality groups in New York—including the Thomas Keller and Danny Meyer groups, TKRG and Union Square Hospitality—pay entry level cooks what they might earn in fast food. Glassdoor, a jobs search website, says the lowest reported wage for an entry-level cook in 2017 is $10.50; the highest is only 46 cents over the new minimum wage requirements. Comparatively, a typical fast-food cook is paid $12 an hour. Eleven Madison Park, named the Best Restaurant in the World in 2017, reported wages of only $11 an hour for cooks.

As the minimum wage slowly rolls into effect, the city asks workers whose employers are not complying with the law to fill out complaint forms and to contact the state labor office.

John Friia and Emily Ziemski


The Tipping Point

The minimum wage in New York City is set to increase to $15 an hour by the end of 2018. While the new law will mean higher salaries for many workers, it doesn’t apply to everyone on a payroll.

Tipped workers, for example, say they are being left out. And they’re right, kind of. They are also going to get a wage increase, up to $10 an hour by 2018 from $7.50, but the rate of increase won’t be the same as the one that workers who aren’t tipped will get.

Tipped workers earn the bulk of their income in tips, so their hourly wages are generally lower than what others earn. The current pay rate for tipped workers in New York City, at $7.50 an hour, is far less than the $10.50 or $11 an hour that workers at other companies earn.

How fast tipped workers in the city will reach $10 an hour depends on how many employees their bosses employ.  By the end of the year, employers with 11 or more tipped workers will pay them $8.65 an hour, up from $7.50, and they’ll complete the mandated increase to $10 an hour by the end of 2018. Employers with 10 or fewer workers, however, will pay $10 an hour by the end of 2019. That’s an increase of $1.15 an hour to $1.35 more per hour by 2019, a roughly 25 percent increase, compared to about a 36 percent hike that hourly workers that aren’t tipped will earn.

By 2019, tipped workers will earn $1.15 an hour to $1.35 more per hour than they do now, that’s roughly a 25 percent increase, compared to about a 36 percent hike that hourly workers that aren’t tipped will earn.

Even though tipped workers will not benefit from the wage increase at the same rate as non-tipped workers,  some say they are looking forward to earning $10 an hour, nonetheless.

Amber Rodriguez, 22, a bartender at Don Coqui in City Island and at Isla Verde in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx on the weekends, says she receives $7.50 an hour from one job and $5 from the other. At the job where she earns a higher hourly rate, she says, she makes less money in tips and often has to rely on her hourly wage paycheck to make ends meet.

“Sometimes I’ll go to work and make no money in tips and hope I get something in my check to hold me over,” she said. “It gets really hard.”

However, she argues, if her hourly pay rate was higher, she’d probably be able to afford working on days that she doesn’t earn as many tips.

At the moment, Rodriguez only earns $5 an hour at her weekend job, lower than the minimum wage. If business is slow, she feels it. Workers like Rodriguez often agree to a lower hourly rate so they won’t get taxed at a higher rate, and owners comply because many don’t want to pay more. Of course, it may not be a choice down the road, since the new law stipulates higher wages for everyone.

For now, all some bar owners can do is worry. Al Castorina, bar owner of Pinstripes in the Bronx, for example, admits he pays his workers $5 an hour, and he is concerned that his establishment will suffer when he has to pay more. Ultimately, he says, customers will feel the impact when the pay rate goes up, as they will have to pay more for drinks. And that, he says, could hurt his bottom line.

“As a service employee you make your money on service,” he said. “If I have to give everyone raises then the price of all menu items will increase, and I’ll probably lose customers.” — Kayla Rivera

Sitting on the orange steel stairs at Chelsea Market, Genesis Martinez, 25, was having her 30-minute lunch break. She usually brings lunch from home but on this afternoon she craved a Subway sandwich and a chocolate chip cookie. Even the 10 percent discount she gets at The Lobster Place, where she’s worked for four years,  isn’t enough to make a meal there affordable.

She gets paid $7.50 an hour plus tips and works 30 hours a week. Martinez says even though her salary is low, she is satisfied with it. Thankfully, she says, her husband has a decent job, and that helps them pay their expenses. — Manolo Morales

Carmen Diaz, 32, came to the United States from Ecuador to earn a good living and she said she meets that goal every day. Diaz has been working as a bartender at Limon Jungle in Hell’s Kitchen for the past four years and makes an hourly wage of $7.50 plus tips.

“Depending on the week, I can make anywhere from $1,000 a week to $1,200,” said Diaz.

Minimum wage for tipped workers is set to rise to $10 an hour by 2018. Diaz said she would rather make lower hourly wages and continue to collect tips. “I would rather do this because I make more money,“ said Diaz. “Fifteen dollars an hour isn’t enough to make a living in New York City.” — Keydra Manns