I can still hear my Jamaican mother’s voice, questioning why I, who’d graduated with a degree in social work, was instead making ends meet as a server at Bistro Bis. It was 20 years ago, and the now-famous gathering spot for D.C. power brokers was as new to the city as I was.
She calmed down a couple years later, when I informed her that my take-home pay was double what I would’ve earned in social work. I’ve spent my career in restaurants, including 15 years at Charlie Palmer Steak, where I worked my way up to head sommelier of the dining establishment’s 4,000-bottle wine program. Especially now that I have a family of my own, I’m grateful for what the restaurant industry has given to me, and concerned by those who are seeking to change its business model.
This June, D.C. primary voters will be asked to weigh in on the seemingly innocuous ballot initiative 77. The “District of Columbia Minimum Wage Amendment Act of 2017,” proposes to increase the tipped minimum wage—that is, the base wage for tipped workers like servers, bussers and hostesses– to $15/hour. What’s wrong with that? Plenty. This misguided initiative will hurt the very people it’s meant to help: tipped workers like my colleagues in restaurants throughout the city.
Requiring that all D.C. workers earn at least minimum wage is definitely a good thing. It’s also already the law. Both Federal and D.C. law require that all tipped employees make the minimum wage through a combination of their base wage plus tips, and strong protections are already in place to ensure this happens. If employee earnings ever fall below minimum wage, the employer must make up the difference. The penalties for skirting this law are massive.
That said, I don’t know that I’ve ever had a restaurant owner have to “make up” my pay, because D.C. tipped workers average well above minimum wage—typically $20-40/hour or more. As a lead server at CPS, I earned approximately $70,000 annually. Surprised? Don’t be.
At least in D.C., these aren’t low-skilled jobs, and consequently, they’re not low-wage jobs. When I’m rubbing elbows with Members of Congress or the CEO of a pharmaceutical giant as I make recommendations for a full-bodied Cabernet, I’m not just a server. I’m a sparkling conversationalist, a concierge, an information desk and at times, a doting mother, all in one. Joining the teams of bold-name chefs like Eric Ziebold or Cathal Armstrong is fulfilling, demanding—and well-paid– work.
Initiative 77 was proposed and championed by the Restaurant Opportunities Center (also known as ROC), a national organization that wants to eliminate the tipped wage system, citing that doing so would help workers at places like Denny’s, IHOP and Applebee’s.
The problem is national chain restaurants of the casual sit-down variety don’t really exist in D.C. Of the more than 2,000 eating and drinking establishments in D.C., few of them are those particular establishments. In D.C., 96% of full-service restaurants are independently operated. This initiative is an attempt to solve a problem that doesn’t exist in the D.C. market.
From studying cities where tips have been eliminated, however, we know the damage that passing Initiative 77 will create. Ironically, it will actually lower wages for tipped workers. Because very few restaurants could afford to pay workers $15/hr plus tips, many compensate by switching to a flat “service charge.” Other restaurants which eliminated the tip system were forced to reduce hours, reduce staff size, increase menu prices, replace tipping with set hourly wages and/or close their restaurants.
When New York restauranteur Danny Meyer famously eliminated tips, forty percent of his long-time servers and other front-of-house staff left, citing that they were making less. Of course they were. No restaurant cuts checks for $40/hour.
Listen to those of us in the industry. Ask the bartender at your favorite restaurant if he’d want to give up tips in favor of a higher hourly wage. I can’t think of anyone who’d agree to it.
The restaurant industry provides tremendous opportunity for those from a variety of backgrounds to make a solid living for themselves and often, their families. It’s that magical unicorn of an industry in that one doesn’t need tons of experience to enter it—I sure didn’t have much when I came to D.C. as a new grad—and yet the ladder up is available and waiting. Don’t put a cap on the earnings of tipped workers like myself. Vote against Initiative 77.
Nadine Brown is the former wine director at Charlie Palmer Steak. She has worked in the D.C. restaurant industry for 20 years.