LGBT customers and employees at D.C.’s gay bars, restaurants and nightclubs are viewing with interest a June 19 ballot initiative asking city voters to decide whether the so-called “tipped wage” exemption should be eliminated and replaced by requiring tipped workers to be paid the full city minimum wage as part of their base pay.
Several tipped workers at D.C. gay bars and clubs, speaking on condition that they not be identified, have said they are unclear about the full implications of the initiative but are worried that it would result in lower tips and lower overall income.
The ballot measure, called Initiative 77, calls for ending a provision in the city’s minimum wage law that allows restaurants, bars and other businesses that employ tipped workers to pay those workers less than the prevailing minimum wage for non-tipped workers.
The “base” minimum wage for tipped workers is $3.33 per hour compared to the full minimum wage of $12.50 per hour for all other city workers. However, a provision in the current law requires restaurants, bars and other employers of tipped workers to pay tipped workers the difference if their tips fall short of the $12.50 per hour minimum wage.
Under a law passed by the D.C. Council in 2016, the full minimum wage will increase to $15 per hour in 2020 and the tipped worker base minimum wage will increase to $5 per hour.
The 2016 law calls for further increases in the minimum wage after 2020 based on the U.S. consumer price index that measures inflation. The 2016 law leaves in place the requirement that tipped workers must be paid the difference if their tips fall short of the full minimum wage.
Initiative 77 would require tipped workers’ base minimum wage to gradually increase to $15 per hour over the next seven years, with the $15 wage taking effect in 2025. If approved by voters on June 19 and cleared by Congress, as all D.C. laws are required to do, the tipped workers’ base minimum wage would be $4.50 an hour by July 1 of this year and go up $1.50 per year until the $15 wage is reached in 2025.
Opponents of the initiative, led by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, say the elimination of the lowered tipped base wage will create an economic hardship for most of the city’s restaurants and bars, which operate on a tight profit margin in D.C.’s highly competitive hospitality market.
They say many restaurants would be forced to put in place a service charge for customers or raise the price of their menu items and beverages, potentially resulting in a sharp decrease in tips for servers and bartenders.
“Restaurant owners and staff are united in opposition to this initiative for the disastrous consequences it could have on D.C.’s restaurant industry, its employees and customers – and greater economy as a whole,” according to a statement released by Kathy Hollinger, president and CEO of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.
“By their own admission, the groups pushing this proposal designed it for the Applebees, IHOPS and Denny’s model of national chains, a type of restaurant that barely exists in D.C.,” Hollinger said in her statement. She added that as many as 96 percent of the city’s restaurants are owned by independent operators running mostly small businesses and which employ most of the city’s tipped workers.
Supporters of the initiative, led by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, or ROC United, which gathered the signatures needed to place the initiative on the ballot, dispute Hollinger’s and the restaurant association’s assessment.
Diana Ramirez, the lead coordinator of ROC United in D.C., told the Washington Blade that a large percentage of tipped workers in D.C. are women of color who don’t work at the high end “white tablecloth” restaurants and bars in the city’s upscale neighborhoods. She said many tipped workers associated with ROC United say their employers don’t comply with the requirement of paying the difference if servers don’t make the full minimum wage in tips.
Ramirez said under the current system, tipped workers have to file a complaint with the D.C. Department of Employment Services if their employer doesn’t pay them the difference to make the full minimum wage. She said it’s unrealistic to expect “low wage” tipped workers to file a complaint, which could jeopardize their jobs.
“If they don’t get it resolved at the DOES they have to file private litigation and that’s costly,” said Ramirez. “We have to fix the system by having one fair wage for everybody rather than ask these people to resort to litigation,” she said.
In its literature supporting the initiative, ROC United points to seven states that require a single minimum wage for all workers, including tipped workers. The states include Alaska, California, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, Minnesota and Montana.
“The sky didn’t fall in these states,” Ramirez told the Blade, claiming that restaurants continue to do well there and customers have continued to tip servers.
The one gay server who agreed to speak to the Blade on the record, bartender and bar manager Dito Sevilla, who works at Floriana Restaurant on 17th Street near Dupont Circle, expressed strong opposition to Initiative 77.
“I think it’s a solution in search of a problem,” he said. “Everyone I know in this business is making at least the minimum wage. I don’t know a single person in Washington in a restaurant that isn’t making at least double the minimum wage,” Sevilla said.
Lesbian server Quantina Pringle, who supports the initiative, said she has worked as a waitress in various D.C. restaurants over the past 16 years and has struggled to make the equivalent of the city’s minimum wage through tips. She noted that because tips vary depending on the day or hours she has worked based on how many customers come in, she has had to work at least five to seven days with at least an eight hour shift in order for her tips to reach the city’s $12.50 per hour minimum wage.
“It’s hard if you need to work part time,” she said, noting that she recently underwent cancer surgery and was unable to work full-time shifts until last month.
She said her current employer, Manny and Olga’s pizza restaurant, has not objected to her volunteer work with ROC United in support of the initiative.
In a development that has surprised observers of the initiative campaign, Local 25 of Unite Here, the D.C.-area chapter of the nationwide union representing hospitality industry workers, including hotel, restaurant, bar, and casino workers, has decided not to take a position on Initiative 77.
John Boardman, an official with Local 25, declined to provide a reason why the union isn’t supporting the initiative at this time.
At least one source familiar with Unite Here, who spoke on condition of not being identified, said rank and file members of Local 25 don’t support the initiative and have made their feelings known to the union’s leaders.
Restaurant association officials dispute ROC United’s claims that many employers aren’t complying with the requirement that they pay the difference for tipped workers that don’t make the full minimum wage through tips and the lower minimum wage currently paid by the employer.
They note that the city now requires restaurants to submit quarterly reports showing the earnings of tipped workers and whether the employer is making up the difference if tips fall short.
However, D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (D-At-Large), who chairs the Council committee that oversees the Department of Employment Services, has said the department has yet to provide the committee data showing the degree of compliance by employers of tipped workers.
In a statement submitted to the committee, the department said it has recently put in place a thorough monitoring system that includes unannounced visits to restaurants and interviews with employees to ensure that employers are complying with the requirement that tipped works make the equivalent of the full minimum wage of $12.50 an hour.