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D.C. servers and bartenders say the tipped wage system isn’t working for them

They're worried about retaliation but want their voices to be heard.

CREDIT: Getty Images
CREDIT: Getty Images

A ballot measure in Washington, D.C. that would raise the minimum wage for tipped workers has been at the center of a heated debate in the restaurant industry.

Tipped workers in the city currently receive a base wage of just $3.33 an hour. On June 19, D.C. voters will vote on whether to change that. Initiative 77 would raise those workers’ minimum wage gradually, so that it matches the city’s minimum wage by 2026.

Bartenders and servers who spoke to ThinkProgress said they support the ballot measure because they want to have a more consistent income and feel less susceptible to putting up with harassment. But there’s a lot of misinformation out there.

The heated debate over Initiative 77

Over the last few months, “Save Our Tips” signs have been spotted inside restaurants and in windows throughout the city due to the opposition from many employers in the restaurant industry.

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Last year, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) created a committee called “Save Our Tip System Initiative 77” to campaign against and spend money on legal challenges against the initiative. The committee is managed in part by the Lincoln Strategy Group, which was responsible for canvassing work for Trump’s presidential campaign, according to The Intercept. The campaign has also received donations from many restaurant groups, including the National Restaurant Association, which successfully lobbied against increasing the minimum wage for tipped workers in the 1990s. The group gave the campaign $25,000 of the $58,550 it has raised so far, The Intercept reported.

“Servers are compensated very well,” Kathy Hollinger, the president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, told WAMU last year. “They make far more than minimum wage because of the total compensation structure that works for a server.”

Most of the servers and bartenders ThinkProgress spoke to said employers oppose Initiative 77 and made their views known. Some employers have even gone so far as to advocate against the ballot measure in discussions with servers and to ask them to tell customers about the measure.

On the other side of the debate are the D.C. branch of Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC) — which is in charge of the national One Fair Wage Campaign to get rid of the tipped wage system — and many workers who the ballot initiative actually affects.

Although under law, tipped workers are supposed to receive the minimum wage, they say enforcement is another issue entirely. (Workers spoke to ThinkProgress on the condition that we do not publish their real names, out of fear of retaliation from their employers.)

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Jamie, who works at a midsize restaurant in Petworth said, “Theoretically, we already have that level playing field, because restaurants are obligated to make up the difference if wage and tips doesn’t come out to minimum wage for workers, but most restaurants are non-compliant and don’t explain this policy to workers.”

Melissa, who works as a server at a restaurant on U Street, said it’s about making things more consistent and enforceable.

“I just think everyone should have that security of knowing they are going to have that paycheck that is going to equal at least a certain amount and it’s a lot more easy to enforce,” she said. “We’ll have tips on top of that and the service as we know it isn’t going to change.”

Michelle, who works as a bartender, said there are Save Our Tips signs on the walls and windows of the restaurant she works at. The restaurant group that owns the restaurant she works for, sends a weekly newsletter to employees, which provides links to instructions on how to volunteer at polls and anti-Initiative 77 videos.

She has heard from servers that they are encouraged to talk to customers about it and “make sure they know the server are against it and that it affects their livelihood and that they should vote against it.”  

Jamie said their employer posted signs that read “NO on 77” and encouraged workers to vote against it. “My managers have also made a point to speak negatively of community organizations that advocate for [Initiative] 77,” they said.

CREDIT: Getty Images
CREDIT: Getty Images

Melissa said she doesn’t have a problem with restaurant owners making their views known as long as they aren’t “lecturing workers on company time” about the ballot measure or spreading misinformation.

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“This Save Our Tips campaign has so much fear mongering and misinformation. People believe so many inaccurate ideas because their bosses have said, ‘This is what’s going on,'” she said. “I just think they should have the correct information. I don’t think that’s happening right now.”

“A lot of them can’t come out in support of it because they could lose their livelihoods.”

Melissa said she thinks workers are being misled when they’re told by employers that people will go eat in Virginia or Maryland instead or that restaurants will close, when in reality, the ballot measure allows the change to take effect gradually. She said some people have told her that they believe ROC is a union and that they will have to pay union dues.

“It’s just a shame they’re being given so many reasons to be afraid,” she said.

NAJ said a lot of people who support the ballot measure are afraid to say anything at their workplace for fear of retaliation.

“Some of those employees are doing so by choice, either because they’re against it or don’t understand it,” they said. “A lot of them can’t come out in support of it because they could lose their livelihoods. They could lose their jobs.”

Many places have already gotten rid of the subminimum wage for tipped workers, including California, Minnesota, Hawaii, Montana, Oregon, Alaska, Washington, and Nevada, and a number of cities. According to the Economic Policy Institute, poverty rates for servers and bartenders are much lower in states that don’t allow a subminimum wage.

Michelle moved to D.C. from California, where they got rid of the subminimum wage, and said she shares her experience working in California with other tipped workers.

“The differences have been pretty striking to me in terms of take-home money, the consistency of a paycheck or the consistency of what I make in a week to two weeks, and also the overtime that is expected of you in a non-tipped wage state,” she said. “I’ve really noticed the difference.”

Michelle said she has asked coworkers who wear No on 77 buttons to tell her more about their opposition to the ballot initiative.

“They’re like, ‘I don’t want to lose my tips’ and I’m like, ‘Oh is that what you believe is going to happen?’ and they say yes. I ask where they’re getting their information from. The only source they have is management and coworkers,” she said. “But they seem to be responsive when I tell them how it was for me when I worked in California and I had a regular paycheck. It wasn’t paying much but at least I could depend on the paycheck every couple weeks that I knew was coming and it was a consistent income as opposed to one week making a difference of $200 to $300 dollars a week depending on tips.”

Workers in support of Initiative 77 say the most privileged voices are the loudest

Servers and bartenders ThinkProgress spoke to said that although some tipped workers who oppose Initiative 77 seem uninformed, others appeared to oppose it because they benefit the most from the current system.

“Most of the white male bartenders I work with are very strongly anti-77,” Michelle said. “Mostly men and white guys are becoming voice of No on Initiative 77 and they are the loudest voice speaking for tipped workers. They aren’t my voice. And the people of color I know in the industry, they are not their voice either.”

NAJ said they don’t see enough people from marginalized groups represented in the debate in the media over Initiative 77.

“They aren’t my voice.”

“The idea that the experience of highest-tier people making the most money should be the representative experience is insulting to people who work in these positions who, for whatever reason, could not move into field of choice because of marginalized identities or whatever it is,” they said. “They are having their livelihoods affected by policies and by business models that literally privilege already privileged people.”

Melissa said people’s opinions seem to be divided along class lines, with people who make more money in the industry opposing the initiative, whereas people who suffer more from wage theft, make lower tips, and work several jobs tend to support it.

“They’re the ones being hurt by the current system,” she said.

CREDIT: Getty Images
CREDIT: Getty Images

Sexual harassment, queerphobia, and racism also needs to be part of the discussion on Initiative 77, servers and bartenders say.

ThinkProgress spoke to queer tipped workers, tipped workers of color, and tipped workers who have experienced sexual harassment. Although servers acknowledge that Initiative 77 won’t eliminate discrimination and sexual harassment from customers, they won’t be as worried about customer biases and behaviors affecting their ability to pay rent or buy groceries — or their ability to push back against harassment.

“I have been kissed by customers against my will. I have been groped. I have had my ass grabbed while I was pouring wine for a table,” Melissa said. “I have had so much inappropriate behavior that I was expected to put up with both by customers and by management because hey, it was a slow night and I needed the money so I guess I’m going to let you grope me if you’re going to tip me.”

“I have been kissed by customers against my will. I have been groped. I have had my ass grabbed while I was pouring wine for a table.”

Melissa said that even with tables she feels more comfortable talking to, she worries about outing herself as queer because she doesn’t know how her customers will feel.

“I have friends who present queer, much more than I do, who have faced discrimination from customers. I don’t want that to happen to me,” she said.

“White men consistently get tipped better than people of other races and genders — I don’t just mean statistically, but I mean that my own experiences have shown this to be the case,” Jamie said.

Michelle said, “As a bartender you’re likely to let a lot more stuff slide that you would otherwise call people out on when you know you’re not as dependent on tips.”

NAJ, who identifies as a Black femme, said, “I most certainly won’t be tipped by a homophobe or someone who is racist. Disabled workers experience this and transgender servers and bartenders experience this.”

“One of the arguments against 77 is that it will affect highest tipped workers in the business,” they added. “Many of them are from privileged groups, usually white men, usually straight appearing, and conventionally attractive and so they’re able to exploit a system that oppresses a certain class in order to make what they consider to be a fair wage. But a black trans woman working at IHOP can’t make anywhere near that.”