September 25, 2013 at 3:40 pm EDT | by Mark Lee
Stop tipping Orange and Graham for bad service
Jim Graham, Vincent Orange, D.C. Council, gay news, Washington Blade, District of Columbia

D.C. Council members Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) (on left) and Vincent Orange (D-At-Large) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Only those unburdened by witnessing in person or watching by broadcast D.C. Council sessions are able to maintain a belief that things are going well at the Wilson Building.

The embarrassing lack of shame or contriteness for all-too-common ethical lapses, as they’re now casually called, and the convoluted excuses by some colleague defenders was on full display once again last week.

More Council members have recently resigned in disgrace for graft and corruption, been reprimanded or censured once or even twice, had committee leadership positions stripped both actual and pending, or serve under suspicion of wrongdoing than have joined the legislative body during the same period.

But that doesn’t even measure the worst of it.

An illustration splashed across the slack-jawed expressions of business leaders at the most recent legislative session.

Two D.C. Council members with committee oversight of hospitality regulation – Vincent Orange and Jim Graham – demonstrated a stunning lack of knowledge regarding how the wage system functions for tipped bar and restaurant employees. As a result, Orange blithely introduced and Graham eagerly co-sponsored legislation that manages to be both meaningless to ensuring that tipped workers make minimum wage and simultaneously devastating for business owners who would be required to pay a redundant special supplement.

Most troubling is that these two legislators either don’t know or don’t care that they have completely misconstrued the pay protocol for those earning tips. Their oddball proposal to raise the base wage paid by employers to tipped workers would only result in creating an arbitrary two-tier wage system adding a 216% surcharge to tip earner base pay.

Here’s how the existing system works. Tipped employees in D.C. are paid a base wage of $2.77 an hour and are guaranteed the local minimum wage by employers obligated to make up the difference in the rare event that servers and bartenders fail to earn the hourly threshold. As those who have toiled for tips know, these workers typically make much more than the minimum – usually at least two or three times the amount.

Regardless, but as a consequence, raising the hourly base pay amount to an astounding $8.75, as Orange and Graham propose, merely provides a $5.98 per hour bonus exclusive to tipped employees. It is simply a selective super-premium pay hike. There is no explanation that makes any sense, despite Orange’s proud declaration from the dais. Clueless calamity is the more apt descriptor for his proposal, enthusiastically embraced by Graham.

Who conveys this stultifying special benefit? The already-squeezed thin-profit-margin restaurateur or bar owner, of course – after they pass 10 cents on each dollar to city coffers in sales tax payment.

Popular local restaurant operator and hospitality advocate Geoff Tracy indicated in reaction to this misguided Orange-Graham mess-of-a-measure that the debilitating cost “would wipe me out.” The owner of two Chef Geoff’s establishments calculates that these premium payments would cost $494,000 in increased annual wage expenses. Other owners and managers lamented that tipped employees would end up earning more than they.

In the District, this is what commonly masquerades as legislative leadership by politicians who haven’t operated a profit-contributing enterprise since that lemonade stand of their childhood.

The greatest affront to community entrepreneurs is the cavalier initiation and enactment of legislation or regulation based on little more than a modicum of misunderstood impressionistic notions. Scant consideration of implications for the financial welfare of the District and the business environment for local commerce informs policy decisions.

This town’s elected Council members, including so-called “reformers” and “good government” types, can’t be bothered with the many details affecting private sector engines that fatten their “part-time” paychecks, employ District residents, fuel the city’s finances and energize the local economy.

But don’t bother D.C.’s political class with such piddling details – they are, after all, busy chasing after self-aggrandizement and feel-good headlines. The real-world repercussions and cumbersome marketplace realities aren’t of much interest to them.

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at

  • I’ve been following this topic with a bit more interest since the proposed LRAA legislation began winding its way through the council and mayoral offices. Wells dropped a draft of his version of a minimum wage rework this summer; one which didn’t mention tip-wage workers at all. The current proposal is equivalent to what Wells finally released as his official position.

    While I agree that it’s got some rough edges and assumptions that need to be vetted, you’ve left out the entire discussion of tax benefits provided to establishment owners as a means of defining where this new cash will be sourced. Also assumed is that products pricing will increase to some (minimal) degree.

    DC is no longer the cheap place to be, much less live or, granted, start/run a business. This is not an unknown aspect of the area. The current bar that is set for determining what is currently an minimum salary is inarguablely insufficient to sustain an individual (much less a family) in this area. Consider the reality that these employees work so that others may play — weekends, holidays, shifts that start before the sun rises and end well after the local public transportation system has closed. These people deserve a demonstrative showing of appreciation for their work in the form of decent, reliable compensation. (Conversely, should they not be performing to established standards, management should be taking action.)

    So, Mark, if not this, what solution(s) are you proposing that will allow the average tip-wage worker to maintain a reasonable lifestyle in DC?

  • ^ @Friend-of-the-Waiter: Thank you for your comment, but please note that you are referencing a completely different legislative proposal, as introduced by Councilmember Wells. The tipped worker provision discussed in my column this week is an element only of the minimum wage bill introduced by Councilmember Orange and co-sponsored by Councilmember Graham, as indicated, and is not an element of any of the the other bills introduced. My focus in this piece concerns only that provision, and not other elements of the “Orange-Graham” bill or the three (3) other wage bills introduced at the most recent Council session — or an additional pending minimum wage proposal from Mayor Gray.

    I trust that this clears up any confusion in this regard. Again, thank you for taking the time to comment — and for being a reader!

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