When D.C. voters go to the ballot boxes on June 19, they will have the opportunity to give the city’s tipped workers a raise. If enacted, Initiative 77 would incrementally increase the District’s tipped minimum wage—currently $3.33 per hour—until it reaches $15 per hour in 2026, when it would equal the minimum wage in non-tipped industries. Such a law would join D.C. with 8 other states that have already ended the distinction in the minimum wage between tipped and non-tipped workers and would create a more fair and equitable system in the city’s workplaces.
As it stands, the District’s minimum wage for tipped workers is higher than the federal minimum wage for tipped workers, which is $2.13 per hour, and will rise to $5 per hour by 2020, by which point the minimum wage for non-tipped workers will be $15 per hour. The minimum wage for tipped workers, proponents of the status quo argue, is lower since the rest of the wages are made up by tips. According to current laws, if a worker’s tips and paid wages don’t add up to the city’s minimum wage—currently $12.50 per hour—then the difference is to be made up by the employer, supposedly ensuring that tipped workers have a sufficient wage.
Still, in Washington, D.C., which ranks second-lowest in tipping rates in the United States, the two-tiered system for wages has proved woefully inadequate for many of the city’s most vulnerable workers. Indeed, a report by the National Employment Law Project found that in the District, the rate of poverty among tipped workers was nearly twice that of non-tipped workers. Among tipped workers, the same report found, there exists a gender gap in which women are two times as likely to experience poverty as men. Across the country, research indicates that biases among customers means that, in the restaurant industry, women have to work harder to make the same tips as men and that black workers earn less in tips than their white counterparts .
By ensuring that each worker is paid a decent, living wage before tips, Initiative 77 can limit the damaging impact that the two-tiered system currently has on women and people of color in tipped industries. To see the effect that the initiative could have, simply look at the success of the other cities and states that have passed similar laws. The National Women’s Law Center reports that in states that have one minimum wage for all workers, “the wage gap for women in tipped industries is 33 percent smaller” than it is in states with a lower minimum wage for tipped workers. Among women of color in tipped industries, the poverty rate is 31 percent lower in states with one fair wage than it is in states which differentiate between tipped and non-tipped workers with the minimum wage.
While the benefits are strongest for women and people of color in tipped industries, these laws help all tipped workers. As the Economic Policy Institute reported, poverty rates among all tipped workers and among waiters and bar staff specifically were lower in states with one single minimum wage. As the report states, the evidence “strongly indicates that the lower tipped minimum wage is driving these differences in outcomes for tipped workers.”
Poverty rates and unequal pay are not the only issues that come about because of the system in which workers rely on tips to survive. In such an environment, which increases the power that customers have over the workers, sexual harassment and assault run rampant. While restaurants make up a small proportion of the entire U.S. economy, 37 percent of sexual harassment claims made to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission came from the restaurant industry. In D.C., over 90 percent of workers in restaurant jobs report witnessing or being a victim of sexual harassment on the job.
A feature in the New York Times shows how the tipped system plays into this culture of sexual harassment and assault in restaurants. Because servers rely on tips for their livelihood, the power dynamic between female servers and male customers is skewed even more in favor of customers and made all the easier for them to exploit. As the Times reports, “[Female restaurant employees] ignore comments about their bodies, laugh off proposals for dates and deflect behavior that makes them uncomfortable or angry—all in pursuit of the $2 or $20 tip that will help buy groceries or pay the rent.”
Like with the issues of poverty and unequal pay, passing legislation similar to Initiative 77 has allowed other states and cities to combat issues of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. Female tipped restaurant workers in states like D.C. that have no single minimum wage are twice as likely to experience sexual harassment and three times as likely to be asked by management to wear more revealing clothing than those in states with one fair wage for all workers. In the #MeToo era, where the stories of courageous women around the country and world are shining a light into the rampant culture of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment that exists in all industries, D.C. voters have the ability to say time’s up on sexual harassment in D.C. restaurants.
Given the potential losses that they would face if they were forced to pay their employees a decent wage, restaurant management and owners have, not surprisingly, mobilized against Initiative 77. The movement against Initiative 77, erroneously titled “Save Our Tips” (the ballot initiative would not end tipping in the district, and the practice continues in the cities and states that have one fair wage), is well funded by the city’s restaurants. Clyde’s, a Georgetown restaurant whose ownership also owns the Tombs, donated $5,000 to the fight against the initiative, according to the Intercept. The same report found that the National Restaurant Association, which lobbies nationally on behalf of restaurant owners donated $25,000 to the fight, which has employed a political consulting firm that aided the Trump Campaign. While restaurant managers and owners have been quick to elevate the voices of workers who oppose the ballot initiative, workers who support the raise often fear repercussions for voicing their position.
In any other industry, it would be ridiculous to expect customers to directly compensate labor, and yet that is exactly what happens in tipped industries in the city. Why? To keep money in the hands of owners and out of the hands of workers. The two-tiered wage system that forces some workers to rely solely on tips is an archaic structure with a racist history that continues in the present. It is a system that impoverishes women and people of color and allows sexualt harassment and assault to run rampant. D.C. voters should vote “Yes” on Initiative 77 on June 19 to create more fair and safe workplaces for D.C. workers.