NEW YORK - US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took lunch orders, served pizza and rocked the cocktail shaker on Friday to promote increased wages for restaurant servers and other tipped workers.
The New York Democrat and media sensation, who famously worked as a bartender before getting elected to Congress last year, brought first-hand experience to the debate over the proposed "Raise the Wage Act," which would raise the US minimum wage to $15 an hour and guarantee that minimum for tipped employees.
US law exempts restaurants, nail salons and car washes from paying their tipped staff the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, instead creating a "tip credit" of up to $5.12 per hour that allows them to pay as little as $2.13 per hour on the books.
"Any job that pays $2.13 per hour is not a job, it is indentured servitude," Ocasio-Cortez told restaurant workers, customers and reporters at the Queensboro Restaurant in her New York City district, in reference to the lowest possible wage before tips.
Ocasio-Cortez, 29, stunned New York Democrats a year ago by defeating incumbent Joe Crowley in the primary election, then cruised to victory in November and soared to national prominence as a leading voice of the left wing of the party.
The National Restaurant Association, the industry lobbying group, has opposed the Raise the Wage Act, saying it would harm restaurants that typically rely on margins between 3 percent and 6 percent, and that the tip credit allows tipped employees to earn far more than the minimum wage.
Supporters of Raise the Wage Act argue that restaurants are doing just fine in the seven states that mandate tipped employees receive the minimum wage.
Ocasio-Cortez said she worked as a restaurant hostess starting at age 16 and later as part of the wait staff, where she was forced to endure sexual harassment, such as inappropriate comments or touching from customers.
Restaurant servers, who are mostly women, are more able to stand up to abusive customers early in the month when they can "tell that guy to buzz off," but are prone to giving in when the rent is due, Ocasio-Cortez said.
"On the 28th or 29th of the month, you will let that person touch you because of economic desperation," she said.
A separate bill, the Be Heard Act, would overhaul workplace harassment laws. Both bills could pass the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives but would face long odds in the Republican-controlled Senate.