Competing “Save Our Tips” and “One Fair Wage” signs have taken over Washington in the lead up to primary election day on Tuesday. Those are the slogans for either side of Initiative 77 — the “One Fair Wage” campaign urges a yes vote while “Save Our Tips” wants you to vote no. Here’s what you need to know about the measure that would increase the tipped wages to the level of the general minimum wage in the District of Columbia.
What is Initiative 77?
Initiative 77 would bring the tipped minimum wage — the amount restaurants pay their wait staff, currently $3.33 an hour — to the standard District minimum wage by 2026.
Washington’s minimum wage is $12.50 an hour, but will rise to $15 by 2020. The tipped minimum wage for the city will go from $3.33 to $5 in the same time frame without the intervention of Initiative 77. Employers are required by law to pay whatever workers don’t make in tips to ensure employees are making at least minimum wage.
Who’s for it?
The campaigns on both sides of the measure are being backed by both local and national organizations. On the One Fair Wage — aka vote yes — side is Restaurant Opportunities Center United, which got the signatures to put the measure on the ballot. They are supported by local progressive organizations including Jews United for Justice.
“Do we think it makes sense for people to make the bulk of their living on whether a diner likes them?” said Rebecca Ennen, deputy director of JUFJ. “The current system is really facilitating a lot of bias, a lot of inequality and, frankly, wage theft.”
Wage theft happens when employees don’t make minimum wage through tips, but either don’t report it to their employer or the employer doesn’t supplement in the income the way it is required by law. Tipped workers — mostly servers and bartenders, but also hair stylists, nail salon workers and massage therapists — are reliant on their employers for how much they will work, Ennen said, adding that because of this workers underreport issues like sexual harassment and wage theft.
Who is against it?
The Save Our Tips campaign — aka vote no — is spearheaded by the National Restaurant Association and the Restaurant Association of Metro Washington.
Christy Setzer, a spokeswoman for the Save Our Tips campaign, said the majority of local restaurant workers and owners are against the measure.
According to the Restaurant Association of Metro Washington, more than 90 percent of D.C.’s restaurants are independently-owned. The measure is targeted for lower-income food industry workers, many of whom work in chains like IHOP or Denny’s. There are very few of those in Washington, Setzer said.
“We don’t believe this is the right solution for D.C.,” she added. “It really is going to be a death penalty for a lot of restaurants.”
Tipped workers are already required to make at least minimum wage, Setzer said, and addressing wage theft would be about enforcement mechanisms, not the wage hike Initiative 77 is proposing.
What about the restaurants?
They are divided, but most end up on the no side. One open letter on voteno77.com is signed by more than 120 independent restaurant owners in the District, including Alex Silverman, of Rose’s Luxury and Pineapple & Pearls; Ari Gejdenson of Sotto, Ari’s Diner and La Puerta Verde, among others; and Jackie Greenbaum of Little Coco’s, Bar Charley, Quarry House and El Chucho.
Adam Bernbach, bar director for Estadio, Proof, Doi Moi and 2 Birds 1 Stone, and Pleasant Pops owner Roger Horowitz said their votes are influenced by what’s best for workers.
Bernbach said most servers and bartenders he knows make closer to $60,000 a year under the current system. Paying them minimum wage instead of tips could cut that in half. At the very least, he said, it would mean restaurants would have to cut hours or jobs to make up the losses.
“This is very concerning for [the workers],” he said. “And that’s where a large part of my concern comes from.” That’s why he plans to vote against the measure.
Horowitz said his shop uses counter service and so doesn’t rely on the tipped wage model. But most of his employees have worked in other restaurants and almost all of them had stories of harassment or wage theft, he said.
“I’m going to be supporting [Initiative 77],” Horowitz said. “Talking to my staff — which is largely women and people of color — I think initiative 77 doesn’t do a great job of addressing wage theft, but since this is the option on the table, I’m supporting it.”
How does this affect tipping?
The measure doesn’t say anything about tipping, but opponents contend it would indirectly cause tipping to decrease or cease as patrons see a service charge, pay higher meal prices or know their servers are already being paid. Proponents say tipping is a part of the culture and that wouldn’t change, pointing to the restaurant industry in California, one of seven states where tipped workers make the statewide minimum wage and tipping has not decreased.