When the D.C. Council recently repealed a bill that aimed to end the so-called “tipped minimum wage,” it rejected a measure that 55 percent of Washington voters had approved only a few months earlier. However, the vote to kill Initiative 77 is being applauded by those most affected: servers and restaurant owners.
The bill was the subject of much discussion among restaurant employees in the spring, leading up to the primary election in June, and their general sentiment was negative. You may have even seen servers wearing “Vote No on #77” pins at restaurants in Washington in the weeks before Election Day. But if the intention of the ballot measure was to gradually increase servers’ wages to match the general minimum wage, why were so many restaurant employees against it? If you’re confused, it’s not your fault. Here’s a quick rundown on the life—and death—of Initiative 77.
- What is Initiative 77?
Currently, restaurants in D.C. are required by law to pay servers and bartenders a minimum wage of $3.89 per hour. This rate is known as the tipped minimum wage. The rate of $3.89 per hour only applies if their tips make up the difference between the tipped minimum wage and the normal minimum wage of $13.25. If their tips do not make up the difference, it is the restaurants’ responsibility to make up the difference for them. Initiative 77 aimed to raise the tipped minimum wage little by little each year to ultimately match the normal minimum wage by 2026.
- What’s the fuss about the initiative?
It sounds like Initiative 77 aimed to put servers and bartenders on a level playing field with all other workers being paid minimum wage. Proponents of the bill said it would also reduce wage theft by employers who don’t always make up the difference between servers’ tips and the normal minimum wage. But the bill didn’t seem appealing to those it intended to help.
“It defeats the purpose. The whole allure of being a server is making big tips and get fast payouts and the initiative takes away all of that,” says Monique Huntsman, a server at La Tasca, a restaurant in Chinatown.
The general consensus among servers is that raising the tipped minimum wage would discourage patrons from tipping normally.
- How much do servers even make?
Servers tend to make more than the general minimum wage already. According to Glassdoor, servers and bartenders in D.C. earn an average salary of $27,134, with their additional wages (tips) averaging $26,103. This makes for a combined salary of $53,237 on average. That is roughly 52 percent higher than the average salary of other full-time minimum wage workers in D.C., who earn about $27,560 annually, according to minimum-wage.org.
- Who would it affect?
Servers and bartenders weren’t the only ones who may have suffered had the initiative survived. Restaurant owners and managers like Kermit Griffin also opposed the initiative.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Griffin, the general manager of Hen Quarter in D.C., said in an interview before the council vote. “If my employees don’t like the initiative, I’m not for it either. The bottom line is, servers can find work anywhere and they are the backbone of the restaurant scene. I’m afraid that if the initiative isn’t repealed, I may not have a staff.”
Some mom-and-pop restaurant owners feared that they wouldn’t be able to afford to pay their employees minimum wage.
“I don’t think we could do it. We have hard enough time keeping our lights on. Our customers and employees are happy. … There’s no need to add stress that we don’t need,” says Ida Cross, former manager of Ooos and Ahhs.
Under Initiative 77, restaurant goers would have seen a “service charge” fee on their bill in addition to a line for tips. They would still have had the opportunity to tip their servers or bartenders, but they may just not have had as many options for places to eat. Many restaurants anticipated having to close or at least decrease business hours had the bill survived because of the potential of losing employees.
The bill to repeal Initiative 77, called the Tipped Wage Workers Fairness Amendment Act, includes clauses to prevent sexual harassment and wage theft in the restaurant business. After the D.C. Council voted 8-5 in October in favor of repeal, restaurant owners and employees hailed it as a win.
- What’s next?
Proponents of the bill haven’t given up yet. They say they are going back to the drawing board and are still dedicated to providing a standard and fair minimum wage for tipped workers. However, at least one server is relieved it’s over and says she hopes that’s the last she’ll be hearing about Initiative 77. “We’re just trying to keep our heads above water, you know,” said Huntsman. “I just want to be able to keep my job and make my money.”