Washington D.C. Voted to Raise the Minimum Wage for Wait Staff, Restaurants Looking to Fight Back
Washington D.C. has voted to raise the minimum wage for tipped employees to $15, which is equal to the pay of non-tipped employees. While this decision is being seen as a good thing by some, others in the restaurant business are fighting against it.
The vote passed in D.C., 44,353 to 36,090, in favor of Initiative 77, according to The Washington Post. The law will require that businesses have the minimum wage raised to $15 an hour by July 2025. The current minimum wage for tipped employees in D.C. is $3.33, and in cases where tips did not cover up to $12.50 an hour, employers are required to pay the difference.
What this vote does is show that Americans, on the whole, are turning against tipping as a practice. According to a poll done by YouGov, “36% of U.S. adults are fine with the current custom of tipping workers such as wait staff, hotel staff, and taxi drivers, an even greater percentage (44%) favor paying these workers a higher wage and doing away with tips altogether.”
Some of that is likely because people don’t like having to tip, especially if they feel they haven’t gotten good service, and dislike feeling responsible for other people’s wages—if they’re even aware of what wages are like for tipped workers. Also, who has ever enjoyed having to do additional math when leaving a restaurant? But there’s also been a much-needed shift in people’s understanding of the impacts of tipping vs. paying normal wages like any other profession.
Like everything else, there are also racist and sexist biases that affect how much people are tipped. Saru Jayaraman, the founder of the New York-based advocacy group behind the initiative, said in a statement, “The voters made history, recognizing that living off tips alone means living in poverty for way too many women, people of color and immigrants.”
She added, “We can reduce rates of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry and end poverty among tipped workers, while helping restaurants to take a high road to profitability. This election victory belongs to the workers—to the hard-working women and men who deserve the dignity that comes with a real paycheck and better tips.”
People in the restaurant business, however, feel as if this change will negatively impact people dining out. Ashok Bajaj, the originator of the Knightsbridge Restaurant Group, spoke to the Post saying that, because prices will go up and tipping will still continue, “on a whole, I think dining out will be a lot more expensive” and as a result, restaurants”probably won’t stay in business.”
A Texas restaurateur named Jeff Black was rattled by the decision, calling it a “500 percent pay raise” that will have to come from somewhere.
“This is singularly the dumbest, most ill-thought-out concept that has ever happened to the hospitality industry,” Black continued. “Period. End of discussion.”
Well, why? Why do we even tip in America? What will laws like this mean to wait staff, and most importantly, what do people who work on tips think?
According to The Economist, tipping comes from feudal Europe, and although it disappeared there, it was culturally shared with America in the late 1800s. Employers took advantage of the practice in order to shortchange employees and “encourage” good service. As a result, we have ended up with the two-tiered pay structure for tipped and non-tipped workers that exists in America today:
Under federal law, tips belong to front-of-house staff, such as servers and bartenders. They earn a lower base pay than back-of-house staff, like cooks and dishwashers, with tips covering the difference. So while the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, it is $2.13 an hour for tipped workers.
With the wages being determined by the customers, not the business itself, it means that servers are, much like Blanche, relying on the kindness of strangers to help make enough money to pay their bills, which leads to wait staff having to deal with the brunt of issues that they have no control over. If your meal is bad, that’s not the server’s fault. If the kitchen is backed up and you have to wait a long time, that, again, is not the wait staff’s fault. Yet, that frustration is taken out in how much customers tip.
The pay difference between the front-of-house and back-of-house swings both ways, depending on many things, like the location of the restaurant and the type of place it is. When tipping “works” in the favor of the wait staff, they can make, according to Quartz, 80% more than kitchen staff, in fine-dining restaurants. However, when it’s a slow night, or in non-fine-dining establishments, or any number of things, it can really be a huge burden to staff, who are not getting a steady, consistent income.
Ultimately, we tip in order for businesses to cut costs and not pay their employees a living wage.
So what does it mean if more laws like the one in D.C. are passed? Well, for one, higher food prices.
The Economist uses an example of: “a casual chain of restaurants that eliminated tips at some sites saw reviews on Yelp for those spots drop by a third of a point on a five-point scale. Reviewers complained about the higher tab; the chain reinstated tips a few months later.”
It seems that we may want a “living wage” but at times are unable to make the sacrifices necessary to allow those kinds of policies to be implemented on a larger scale.
Erin Longbottom, a former server, wrote an article for the Women’s National Law Center about why she voted yes on the new law. She explains that even working at a successful D.C. restaurant chain she still found herself opening the store at 7 a.m. and “then worked until 4 p.m. without breaks, trying to make sure I took home enough to cover my bills that month.” Working 12-hour shifts to make ends meet.
Also, when your tips depend on good customer service, you are not encouraged to speak up for yourself when sexist or racist comments are made against your person.
Maddie Oatman, a former severer as well, wrote an article for Mother Jones back in 2016 that explained how tipping has so much inherited racial bias in it, with nonwhite restaurant workers, earning 56 percent less than their white co-workers. Additionally, in general, “waitresses are twice as likely to use food stamps as the general population.”
What is important to add is that Initiative 77 is not calling for the end of tips. It is just asking that wait staff get a fair base pay from which they can have a stable income and have tips on top of it.
Will people still tip with laws like these on the books? According to the earlier YouGov poll, yes, most will. The poll found that “71%, US adults are most likely to think restaurant servers should get a little something extra for their efforts.” Which means that people will still get tipped on top of their wages, which will be more in line with a “living wage.”
Are there going to be people like Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs? Yup, but now your bills won’t depend on him.
Despite knowing all of this, I understand why laws like this can put servers on edge. The reality is that no state really has a “living wage,” and if you are working in a place like San Franciso, where the minimum wage is $14.00, or New York City, where it’s $15.00, that may be higher than a place like Georgia, where the state law sets the minimum wage at $5.15, but it’s still a low amount in the face of the high cost of living in those places.
We need to recognize that a living wage means something different everywhere and that if people want to protect the working class and jobs that you can get without a college degree or less experience, that means supporting efforts to get people paid a fair wage.
(image: Miramax/edited by me)
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