Mark Lee recently wrote an op-ed in the Blade expressing his opposition to paying D.C. restaurant workers minimum wage. He claimed that efforts to help hospitality industry workers get paid fairly are “befuddling residents by contorting facts.” Yet he does not dispute any of the facts that restaurant workers’ rights supporters cite in defense of their cause.
Namely, Lee raises no challenges to the Department of Labor investigation of 9,000 restaurants that exposed that 84 percent were not in compliance with wage and labor standards. (This means that many restaurant workers are being paid BELOW the legal minimum wage.) Perhaps Lee has never seen the pervasiveness of under-compensation that permeates the industry.
I have worked in several restaurants here in the District and can say wage reform is critical for this industry. Even the most well meaning restaurant managers are often unable to follow wage regulations because of the complexity of the process and profit seeking pressure from the top to keep overall labor costs as low as possible. Requiring restaurant workers to be paid a flat living wage would simplify the payroll process dramatically and make it harder for managers to underpay employees. Lee suggests that worker advocates are seeking to confuse folks, but the truth is that our movement is one of clarity that would add seamlessness to industry procedures.
More than a third of restaurant workers (33.5 percent) in D.C. are not paid time and a half when they work overtime and many are paid nothing for hours past the 40th hour in a week. A change in law is the best way to remedy this injustice because workers who complain have very little power to affect change and risk being fired or having their hours cut. Congress hasn’t raised the tipped minimum wage in 20 years leaving the measly $2 and change per hour with even less purchasing power today because of the rising prices of goods and services over time. Here in D.C. with our outrageous cost of living, we have no time to wait for a stagnant Congress to step in on behalf of restaurant workers.
The dining out population in the District of Columbia wishes for service workers to be treated with dignity and fairness. Sixty-eight percent of restaurant workers report that they lack a pathway to upward mobility in the form of routine raises in response to excellent job performance. A fair wage would demonstrate to these workers that they are valued. Valued workers are likely to perform better. There is no honor in exploiting the people who prepare and serve our food. Wage incentives are an integral part of a successful competitive marketplace.
A reasonable wage would not dismantle the tipping system as restaurant workers would still be able to earn tips based on merit. Tipping is a cultural custom that isn’t going anywhere. In California, the minimum wage for restaurant workers is $10 per hour, the industry is thriving and workers are still tipped. There are seven states total that do not subject restaurant workers to a separate lower minimum wage and 19 states that don’t pay restaurant workers as little as D.C. does.
The real deception in this debate lies in the unfounded apocalyptic predictions that anti-worker activists are making. The sky won’t fall if restaurant workers get a living wage. Quite to the contrary, more talented individuals will enter the restaurant profession as it becomes more reputable and the market will adjust like always. D.C. residents want this reform and will make it happen.
In the next few weeks, community and labor groups will be asking registered D.C. voters to sign petitions to put a livable wage measure for all workers on the ballot in November, and I urge voters to sign it.
Jimmie Luthuli is a past secretary of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club.