When most bartenders shake up margaritas, the bars don’t usually erupt in cheers – but most bartenders aren’t Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The New York Democrat – and former bartender – waited tables Friday afternoon to raise awareness for Democrats’ fight to increase the national minimum wage to $15 an hour.
“I’ve always got my backup job,” she joked to patrons while ringing up pizza orders and mixing cocktails at the restaurant in New York’s borough of Queens. “I’ve still got it!”
Ocasio-Cortez is a cosponsor of the Raise the Wage Act, which would bump the federal minimum hourly wage to $15 for all workers – up from the current $7.25 hourly rate, which hasn’t been raised since 2009.
Speaking to the crowd, Ocasio-Cortez described both the opportunities and difficulties posed by the restaurant industry, drawing from her own experience.
“My first job, when I was about 16 years old, was as a hostess at an Irish pub,” she said, adding that “my hostessing job paid for my train tickets to come down to Manhattan so I could work and study in science labs and enter science competitions in high school.”
Ocasio-Cortez described how she worked in the restaurant for four years including after college in search of a stable job, pointing to the low wages as a factor in the exploitation and harassment that she said were rampant in the restaurant industry.
“Any job that pays $2.13 an hour is not a job, it is indentured servitude,” she said, referencing the current minimum hourly wage for tipped workers. “All labor has dignity, and the way that we give labor dignity is by paying people the respect and value that they are worth at minimum.”
Patrons were eager to chat with their waitress and bartender, the congresswoman.
One woman described how meaningful it was to her and her Muslim family to see Ocasio-Cortez’s work in Congress. Another asked Ocasio-Cortez about how to protect small businesses as communities change because of rising rents.
Another woman said she had not been able to finish watching Ocasio-Cortez cook beans on Instagram Live and asked how the dish came out. Switching to Spanish at times, Ocasio-Cortez recorded a voice message for one woman, urging activists in Spanish to “keep up the fight, because we’re going to win.”
“It feels good to work with my hands,” she told one patron from behind the bar, adding that “it feels more like the real world sometimes, so it feels really good.”
Ocasio-Cortez mentioned her own experience with harassment in the restaurant industry, recounting that she sometimes felt forced to choose between paying her bills and ensuring her personal safety.
“I remember working in restaurants, you know, and you would have someone say something extremely inappropriate to you, or you’d have someone touch you, and the thing is, it would be the 28th of month, the 29th of the month, and the first of the next month was rolling right around and you have a rent check to pay,” she said. “And so you are more likely to stand up for yourself and reject sexual harassment on the 15th of the month or maybe the 10th of the month, when you could pick up an extra shift to make up for telling that guy to go buzz off. But on the 28th or 29th of month, you will let that person touch you because of your economic desperation.”
She continued, “You will take that dangerous shift that gets out at 3 o’clock in the morning and take a train an hour home, because I have done this, where people could sexually harass you again on the subway on the way home because you need to make up, because your check is unstable.”
Ocasio-Cortez argued that America must “live up to” the value of freedom by ensuring economic freedom through wage stability.
“We need to be paid a stable enough wage to reject sexual harassment, to say, ‘I’m not going to take that degrading shift,’” she said, adding, “We shouldn’t have to work 80-hour weeks so that our kids can have a meal at lunch – that’s not the way it should be.”
She pointed to a lack of understanding about who tipped workers are – not simply those in the food services industry.
“When we talk about tipped wages, people think of this industry, people think of bartenders and they think of waitresses and they’ll think about when they had that job back in the day and they made so much money during the summer.” she said. “But they don’t think about nail salon workers, they don’t think about car wash attendants. They don’t think about these people that, so many of us don’t even know, are depending on our tips, too.”