Leading the way was Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, whose bill in Congress, the Raise the Wage Act, would enact a $15 minimum wage in every state.
The legislation would also eliminate the lower minimum wage for tipped workers, including restaurant servers and bartenders.
The tipped wage in New York currently stands at $10 an hour, which is much higher than the federal standard of $2.13 an hour. New York’s minimum wage is $15 an hour, which is more than double the federal minimum wage, which is $7.25.
Velazquez said this is a women’s issue because two-thirds of people who work in the restaurant industry are women. Despite working full-time and year-round, they still live in poverty, she said.
“If we want to close the gap in terms of income inequality in our country, we need to start by having a one-tier system that treats every worker the same,” Velazquez said.
The congresswoman, who chairs the House Committee on Small Business, acknowledged that some businesses will say the policy will be an economic burden.
But she countered that in the seven states where the minimum wage went up, people were “lifted out of poverty” because of the higher wage.
She also argued that a higher wage benefits the local economy.
“When you increase the minimum wage for a worker, they’re not going to buy a second home,” she said. “They spend that money at the grocery store or in the restaurant industry.”
Velazquez added that there’s nothing in the bill that prevents customers from tipping, so workers are still incentivized to provide good service.
Actress and activist Erika Alexander, best known for her role in “The Cosby Show” and the sitcom “Living Single,” was among the celebrities who poured coffee at the restaurant on Monday.
She said growing up in Flagstaff, Arizona, her father was an itinerant preacher, a job that pulled in little money for her family. She spoke about how they “dumpster-dived” just to make ends meet.
“I certainly identify with the loss of income and the instability of it,” she said.
Alexander is also playing a waitress in a new Hulu drama series called “Wu Tang: An American Saga,” which is based on the hip-hop group. She plays RZA’s mother, who waited tables at the Rib Shack in Staten Island.
The actress said she supports the legislation because it helps lift up people of color and women who work in these businesses.
“When you support women and children, you support the village,” Alexander said. “When they can do better, they can educate their children better, they can get them health care, they can have better options themselves.
“More importantly, they’re more likely to come to work,” she added, “are less harassed and are in better spirits.”
Elizabeth Murray, the director of human resources and communications for Marlow Collective, the restaurant group that owns Marlow & Sons, said they support the “One Fair Wage” effort as a “pathway to a more equitable, safer and sustainable system of pay.”
“Especially for people who are raising families and single mothers, which is a huge portion of the tipped workforce, being able to earn a sustainable wage is a really big issue,” she said.
Murray added that the restaurant industry is “struggling in a lot of ways.” She called on the government to do more to help, including looking at tax incentives and solving rent issues.
But for the Marlow Collective, suppressing workers’ wages is not a sustainable, long-term strategy to run a business.
“We’re not comfortable telling other business owners what’s best for them,” she said. “But for us, this is the pathway we want to take.”