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Servers offer their two cents on eliminating tip wages

The past year has seen a surge of stories about sexual harassment, from the political world to Hollywood, in business and in communities.

In New York and many other states, sexual harassment has been seen as a problem in the food service industry in particular.

In December 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor, aligning itself with the National Restaurant Association, proposed a rule that would allow employers to keep workers’ tips when they are paid at least the minimum wage. The idea was that tipping was to blame for high rates of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he plans to end minimum wage tip credits and instead have servers, like other workers, earn a flat rate.

Those in support of a flat pay rate say that, under the current system, sometimes a server has to choose between overlooking inappropriate behavior and risking the loss of a tip by protesting.

But local restaurant workers — tipped or not — feel they and others in the service industry are being shortchanged. Many local service employees say they aren’t flashing a smile to harassing customers for better tips.

“It’s an absolute cop-out!” Bullpen Tavern owner Paul Bricoccoli said about the theory that tips fuel sexual harassment.

Numerous servers interviewed in Warren, Washington and Saratoga counties said they work hard for their tips and want to keep their tips but will not tolerate sexual harassment for better tips. Most of them emphasized that they, and their bosses, are prepared to protest bad behavior.

“Anyone who disrespects my female employees is out the door in 10 seconds. I have no problem kicking people out who treat my employees with disrespect,” Bricoccoli said.

Bricoccoli has four female servers/bartenders and said he has rarely had any issues with sexual harassment. In his 24 years in business, he said he has heard the odd inappropriate comment and witnessed a grab her and there, but it has been addressed on the spot.

“And if you do (have problems), it’s the owner’s fault. Using tips as the reason is such an excuse,” he said.

Not always right

Lauren Squires, a bartender and server at O’Toole’s Restaurant Pub in Queensbury, credits her management for maintaining a respectful atmosphere.

“We’re servers, not slaves,” Squires said.

Squires said she has received her share of lascivious comments, but she isn’t afraid to handle them on her own.

“But honestly, he or even our regulars would put an end to it before I even had to,” Squires said, pointing to her boss, Mike Moynihan, the general manager.

“We’re a little family here, from the front of house to the back. We all have each other’s backs.”

Squires did note that the “customer is always right” ethos tilts the equation, creating a power imbalance, but added that, at some point, the customer is just wrong.

Maggie Raczynski, a bartender at Outback Steakhouse in Clifton Park, said her staff would never stand for sexual harassment either, because “here we treat each other like family.”

“And family doesn’t stand for that,” she said.

Raczynski cited a recent piece from The New York Times, published on March 12 and headlined “The Tipping Equation.” The story explored how far is too far when weighing harassing behavior for a better tip.

In the article, waitresses described encounters they had with pushy men who touched them, made outrageous remarks and threatened their tip if they didn’t participate in the power trip.

Raczynski said an even more infuriating aspect of the story were the women’s cases in which the waitstaff confided in their managers, who then sided with the customers. One even shook a customer’s hand after he had made inappropriate remarks to the waitress.

“Just because we work for tips doesn’t mean we don’t have basic human rights and don’t know the difference between right and wrong,” Raczynski said.

Asked to leave

In this area, The Post-Star approached servers at seven local establishments to ask about their experience with sexual harassment in the workplace and tipping. Two servers did not participate, because they didn’t want to discuss their incidents or get their workplace in trouble; one never followed up with The Post-Star; one said she has never dealt with sexual harassment at work; and the other three, quoted in this story, said they address any problems they do encounter head-on.

All of the interviewed establishments have their own sexual harassment policies, and most assign a new server to an offending customer or simply ask the offending customer to leave.

“If you cross a line with me, your money won’t make or break my life. And if your boss won’t do something about it, your boss has a boss. There are other options and nobody should have to tolerate that. Trust me, there’s another job for you in another restaurant,” Raczynski said.

Fighting to save tips

In New York, there are roughly 200,000 servers and bartenders, making those jobs the most common in the state.

On March 21, restaurant workers and their allies won bipartisan support from members of Congress and the Trump administration to include a provision in the omnibus budget bill that, if enacted, codifies protections for tipped restaurant workers against employers, supervisors and managers taking any portion of their tips.

Employers in New York currently are permitted to pay tipped workers a direct cash wage that is below the state minimum wage and take a “credit” for some of the tips received by employees to satisfy the difference between the cash wage paid and the full minimum wage.

With the current model, servers can make a good living. Data from the New York City Hospitality Alliance show that servers could average $25 an hour with tips.

Raczynski makes anywhere from $17 to $35 an hour from tips alone, she said. Her $7.50 per hour wage comes on top of that.

“It’s because I work hard at my job and am good at my job, and for no other reason,” she said.

Kelsey Silburn, 25, a bartender at Bullpen, said the tips make the work feasible.

“Most of us would not be able to pay our bills without the tips that we receive, even if the minimum wage was raised,” Silburn said, talking about the legislation to emphasize wages over tips. “It seems like those in charge of making this decision don’t really understand how something like this will affect the employees and the restaurant business as a whole.”

That message was echoed loud and clear on March 15 at Longfellows Hotel in Saratoga Springs.

More than 100 servers and restaurant owners attended a meeting that day, and Raczynski was one of them. Joshua Chaisson, a leader with Restaurant Workers of America and within Restaurant Workers of Maine, helped lead the meeting.

Restaurant Workers of America is the first organization of its kind — an employee advocacy organization dedicated to the preservation of tip income.

The purpose of the forum was to get servers and other service industry employees from the area together to express their dislike for the proposed tip credit law and discuss how to move forward. When the topic of sexual harassment fueling the tip proposal came up, numerous women, and men, made gestures and sounds of disappointment.

“What a lie” and “so insulting” were comments audience members made.

Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, was FaceTimed into the conversation.

“You’re professional salespeople and not victims, and I support you,” Woerner said over the phone.

Raczynski wrote a letter in response to the 16 celebrities who announced their support for Cuomo’s proposal. Between New York and Maine, 500 servers have signed the letter.

“To the celebrity women who recently criticized the full-service restaurant industry, from thousands of women who work in it, thank you for your concern. But we don’t need your help, and we’re not asking to be saved. You’ve been misled that we earn less than minimum wage, and that we are somehow helpless victims of sexual harassment,” is how the letter starts.

“Bad behavior happens in every industry — Hollywood celebrities should know better than most that sexual harassment happens everywhere. The people who are pushing for this change in the restaurant industry are exploiting the isolated stories of people that have suffered injustices, and making it out to be the industry’s or the tipping system’s fault. That is just not true.”

“We respect your profession, and now it’s time for you to respect ours.”

Nobel Prize winner Malala visits her Pakistan hometown

MINGORA, Pakistan — Pakistan’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai returned to her hometown Saturday for the first time since receiving a gunshot wound to the head there in 2012 for her work as an advocate for young women’s education.

Yousafzai and her family arrived in a helicopter provided by the Pakistani military, which took her to the town of Mingora in the Swat Valley from Islamabad. She had arrived in the capital before dawn on Thursday flanked by heavy security and plans to return Monday to Britain.

Yousafzai, 20, won international renown after she was shot by the Taliban in Mingora. She received initial treatment in Pakistan and later was taken to England for further care. She stayed on in the United Kingdom to continue her education and became the youngest person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.

Yousafzai entered her childhood home Saturday accompanied by her father, mother and brother. She sobbed upon entering the home where relatives, former classmates and friends had been anxiously waiting since morning to welcome her with flowers and hugs.

Youzafzai said she waited for the moment for more than five years and said she often looked at Pakistan on the map, hoping one day to return. She said she plans to permanently return to Pakistan after completing her studies in Britain.

“It is still like a dream for me, am I among you? Is it a dream or reality,” she said.

Yousafzai later returned to Islamabad, where she met with human rights activists.

Arooj Bibi, a neighbor, said she was happy to meet with Youzafzai, but was sad because her visit was so brief. Bibi said Yousafzai “lit the candle of education. God willing, there will be thousands of girls like Malala getting an education” in Swat.

Yousafzai also attended a gathering at the army’s Cadet College in Swat, where the Pakistani Taliban led by Mullah Fazlullah had taken over the scenic valley in 2007, marking the height of their strength there. The Pakistani military would later evict militants from the valley.

Security had been visibly beefed up in Mingora the previous day. The Pakistani Taliban had warned after the attack on the then-14-year-old that they would target her again if they got the chance.

Yousafzai had asked authorities to allow her to go to Mingora and Shangla village in the Swat Valley, where a school has been built by her Malala Fund.

In October 2012, Yousafzai was shot in the head by a Taliban militant who jumped inside her school van and yelled, “Who is Malala?” She was targeted for speaking out on education for young women. The Taliban at the time claimed responsibility for the shooting, saying she was promoting “Western thinking,” adding that they had warned her family three times before deciding to kill her.

Since her attack and recovery, Yousafzai has led the Malala Fund in which she said has invested $6 million for schools and books and uniforms for schoolchildren.

Yousafzai has delighted in telling the Taliban that instead of silencing her, they have amplified her voice. She has also written a book, spoken at the United Nations and met with refugees.

On Friday, Yousafzai praised the Pakistan army in an interview on the independent Geo news channel for providing her timely medical treatment, saying her surgery was done by an army surgeon at the “right time.”

Yousafzai has won praise from across Pakistan on her return home, but some critics on social media have tried to undermine her efforts to promote girls’ education. Yousafzai told media outlets Friday that she expected criticism from militants, who had a particular mindset, but doesn’t understand why some educated Pakistanis oppose her.

“Those who do criticize have an absurd kind of criticism that doesn’t make any sense,” she said in an interview with Pakistan’s The News English-language newspaper published Saturday.

“What I want is for people to support my purpose of education and think about the daughters of Pakistan who need an education,” she told the newspaper. “Don’t think about me. I don’t want any favor or I don’t want everyone to accept me. All I care about is that they accept education as an issue.”

In the interview, she said she was sitting in her classroom when news broke about her Nobel Prize and that she was not aware of it as she was not using her mobile phone at the time.

“My teacher came into my classroom and called me outside. I was worried that I might have done something wrong and I am in trouble. But she told me that I had won the Peace Prize. I said thank you. You don’t know how to respond. For me, it was for the cause of education,” she told the paper.

Trump goes after Amazon — again — over postal delivery

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is again attacking online retailer, calling its business deal with the U.S. Postal Service to deliver packages a money-losing agreement that hurts U.S. taxpayers. Federal regulators, however, have found the contract with Amazon to be profitable.

In tweets Saturday, Trump said “the U.S. Post Office will lose $1.50 on average for each package it delivers for Amazon. That amounts to Billions of Dollars.”

He added: “If the P.O. ‘increased its parcel rates, Amazon’s shipping costs would rise by $2.6 Billion.’ This Post Office scam must stop. Amazon must pay real costs (and taxes) now!”

Amazon has been a consistent recipient of Trump’s ire. He is sore because its founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post, which Trump has labeled “fake news” after the newspaper reported unfavorable developments during his campaign and presidency.

Trump made the link himself in Saturday’s tweets, accusing Amazon of using the “Fake Washington Post” as a lobbyist. The Post and Bezos have responded to Trump’s lobbyist claims in the past by declaring that Bezos is not involved in any journalistic decisions at the paper. Inc. and The Washington Post declined to comment Saturday.

Amazon lives and dies by shipping, and an increase in the rates it pays could certainly do some damage. Amazon sends packages via the post office, FedEx, UPS and other services.

But while the U.S. Postal Service has lost money for 11 years, package delivery — which has been a bright spot for the service — is not the reason.

Boosted by e-commerce, the Postal Service has enjoyed double-digit increases in revenue from delivering packages, but that hasn’t been enough to offset pension and health care costs as well as declines in first-class letters and marketing mail. Together, letters and marketing mail make up more than two-thirds of postal revenue.

In arguing that the Postal Service is losing money on delivering packages for Amazon, Trump appears to be citing some Wall Street analyses that argue the Postal Service’s formula for calculating its costs is outdated. A 2017 analysis by Citigroup did conclude that the Postal Service was charging below market rates as a whole on parcels. Still, federal regulators have reviewed the Amazon contract with the Postal Service each year and determined it to be profitable.

A spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service declined to comment. An independent agency, it does not use taxpayer money for its operations.

The post office does not break down what is driving its growth, but online ordering from retailers, particularly, has revolutionized the way goods are bought and delivered. The Postal Service reached new highs last year in holiday package delivery, with more than 850 million U.S. parcels delivered from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve, according to figures compiled by industry tracker ShipMatrix Inc.

The Postal Service says it set a record on Dec. 18 when more than 37 million packages were delivered, the most in a single day in its more than 240 year history.

Amazon has taken some steps toward becoming more self-reliant in shipping. Last year, it announced it would build a worldwide air cargo hub in Kentucky, about 13 miles southwest of Cincinnati.