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A coalition of labor advocates, elected officials and workers rallied in Albany on International Women’s Day to demand state legislators pass a series of bills that would especially help low-income women and women of color.
Fund Excluded Workers Coalition, One Fair Wage, Communications Workers of America and Raise Up NY were among the groups who gathered at the state Capitol’s Million Dollar Staircase last week to call on Governor Kathy Hochul to raise the state’s minimum wage and enact initiatives to aid workers, particularly women, struggling to make ends meet.
“We want the unemployment bridge program, we want a higher minimum wage in New York, and we want to end the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers,” said Inayat Sabhikhi, the national research and coalition manager at One Fair Wage.
The activists argued that the reforms would have a disproportionate impact on women because they make up nearly two-thirds of the low wage workforce, according to research from the National Women’s Law Center.
“The fight for gender justice is the fight for wage justice. The fight for gender justice is the fight for worker justice,” Assembly Member Jessica González-Rojas said during the March 8 event.
The activists also pushed the Raise the Wage Act sponsored by Senator Jessica Ramos, which would increase the state’s minimum wage to $21.25 an hour in New York by 2026 and would tie it to inflation.
“Too often, the people behind me, those who help raise the rich’s children, who help take care of our elderly parents, who sacrifice in inclement weather to plant and harvest our food and serve it on our plates, go hungry in our communities because they are not earning a fair wage. And today we say that enough is enough,” Ramos said during the rally.
The advocates urged legislation to end sub-minimum wages, which would require restaurants to pay tipped workers the state’s full minimum wage within the next five years. Currently, in New York City, Westchester and Long Island, where the minimum wage is $15 an hour, food establishments are allowed to pay their employees $10 an hour, with tips accounting for the rest of the workers’ wages. In the rest of the state, restaurants must pay their workers at least $9.45 an hour.
About 70 percent of tipped workers across the country are women, the NWLC reported. Ending the sub-minimum wage is important because women — especially women of color — working in the restaurant industry face growing wage gaps, One Fair Wage found. In 2021, black female restaurant employees working at the front of the house earned $6.19 an hour less than white men in the industry, or $12,875 annually.
“It is an issue that disproportionately impacts women, women of color and immigrant women. That’s not OK,” Gonzalez-Rojas said.
'There's no alternatives'
The coalition also demanded that unemployment insurance benefits be expanded to cover workers who are excluded from federal protections, including self-employed workers such as vendors and freelancers, undocumented workers and domestic workers. The $500 million fund, known as the Unemployment Bridge Program, would allow about 750,000 excluded workers across the state to obtain unemployment insurance.
Maria Lopez, a member of the Street Vendor Project, called for the safety-net program for immigrant workers, who could not receive unemployment during the height of the pandemic and had to continue working at the risk of contracting the virus.
“I’ve been a vendor for almost 14 years and have never faced such losses as I did during the pandemic. But there’s no alternatives, because without these earnings, we would not survive,” she said through a translator.
Nidia, a domestic worker who spoke through a translator and did not give her last name, first had her hours greatly reduced during the pandemic and then lost her job entirely but was ineligible for unemployment insurance.
“Many immigrants contribute financially to New York State as taxpayers and workers. It is not fair that our taxes are used to finance many state support programs, such as the unemployment insurance program, but we are excluded,” she said.
Advocates held several other events last week to bring attention to the bills. Excluded workers marched across the Manhattan Bridge to demand unemployment insurance, and on March 9, activists rallied in Middletown to support increasing the state’s minimum wage.
Ramos said she hoped to see the Raise the Wage Act and the Unemployment Bridge Program enacted in the final budget due next month, “because our moms and our sisters and every single woman deserves peace of mind knowing that they’ll be able to provide for their families.”
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