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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez mixes drinks, advocates for $15 minimum wage

Member of Congress makes issue-oriented return to service-industry roots

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) returned to her service-industry roots Friday for a one-day-only stint as a bartender at a restaurant in Queens, New York.

Though Ocasio-Cortez only appeared behind the bar at The Queensland restaurant for an hour, she used the opportunity to promote a $15 per hour federal minimum wage in partnership with Restaurant Opportunities Center United, the fair wage advocacy group for the restaurant industry.

“It’s time to #RaisetheWage to $15 an hour nationally, no exceptions, #TipsonTop,” Ocasio-Cortez said in an Instagram post following the event. “It’s far too easy to exploit tipped workers otherwise, which is why sexual harassment and labor violations run rampant in an industry that is up to 70% women and 40% single mothers.” The federal minimum wage has been at $7.25 an hour since July 2009, although many jurisdictions have raised it.

Ocasio-Cortez first announced the bartending stint in her district via Twitter by calling out her conservative critics for mocking her bartending background. She was working the Coffee Shop in Manhattan until a year before her election last fall.

The member of Congress discussed wages of tipped workers in an invitation-only room filled with hourly workers and labor advocates in matching t-shirts. It would “erupt into applause” every time she shook a cocktail, The New York Times reported.

Ocasio-Cortez has garnered national attention and media headlines as the rags-to-riches story — or more accurately, the bartender-turned unlikely candidate for Congress-turned progressive favorite — who advocates for hourly wage workers.  With the current minimum wage for tipped workers at $2.13 per hour, Ocasio-Cortez has spoken frequently about advocating for higher federal wages and is a co-sponsor for a bill that would raise the New York State minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024.    

“Any job that pays $2.13 an hour is not a job. It's indentured servitude,” she said during the organized event, which advocated for Restaurant Opportunities Center United’s One Fair Wage Campaign.

But as labor costs continue to rise in the restaurant industry — 64% of restaurant operators reduced employee hours and 71% raised menu prices due to labor costs, according to a recent Harri Hospitality and Food Service Wage Inflation Survey – the restaurant industry has been aware of Ocasio-Cortez’s arguments.

“For those [in the restaurant industry] who even noticed, I think it will largely be viewed as typical political grandstanding and likely shrugged off for the most part,” said Joseph Kefauver of Align Public Strategies, who spoke about Ocasio-Cortez during a recent edition of the Nation’s Restaurant News’ Working Lunch podcast.

“ROC is very smart to engage in any type of working partnership, either formally or informally, with Ocasio-Cortez,” Kefauver said. “It instantly elevates not only ROC’s awareness and credibility in those same audiences that AOC is appealing to, it elevates their agenda on the priority list of the progressive wing of the party and ultimately the party itself. Remember, it isn’t Republicans in the House standing in the way of that body passing a $15 per hour federal minimum wage bill – it’s moderate Democrats in non-coastal swing districts that are the holdup.”

In addition to advocating for higher wages, Ocasio-Cortez has also pushed for Medicare for All and has led the charge among Democratic representatives to abolish the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and encourage better treatment of immigrant workers: both issues that directly affect the restaurant industry’s labor force.

Representatives for Ocasio-Cortez and for Restaurant Opportunities Center United did not return requests for comment in time for publication.  

Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected] 

Follow her on Twitter: @JoannaFantozzi

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