Courtesy Laura Habberstad
Courtesy Laura Habberstad

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Laura Habberstad had just finished waiting on a group of eight people at an upscale restaurant in D.C. Instead of ordering off the menu, the host asked her to curate a meal for the table. Several of the diners had allergies or dietary restrictions Habberstad had to consider while planning their dinner on the fly.

“A lot went into it,” she says. “Creative energy, understanding our offerings, reading the guests, and creating a unique experience that they’ll remember. Unfortunately, I’ll really remember it too.”

Habberstad was ordering the party taxis at the end of the meal when the host uttered some parting words: “Congratulations on your raise.” She was perplexed until she saw the check. The table had only tipped $50 on a $1,321 bill. (The restaurant, which Habberstad doesn’t want named, does not have an automatic gratuity policy for large parties.) A 20 percent tip would have been $260. “They were the last table and I just lost it,” she says. “I started screaming.” 

Bartenders and servers from high-end restaurants and dive bars alike say they’ve occasionally been stiffed on tips since ballot Initiative 77 passed on June 19. The referendum seeks to eliminate the tip credit, where operators can pay tipped workers a lower base wage and count on tips from customers to carry them to the standard minimum wage. If a tipped worker’s base wage plus tips doesn’t carry him or her over minimum wage, the employer is required to make up the difference.

On July 1, the standard minimum wage went up to $13.25 and the tipped minimum wage went up to $3.89. Both increases were scheduled to take effect regardless of what happened with the ballot initiative. 

If Initiative 77 is enacted, the tipped minimum wage will go up in eight increments until it reaches $15 in 2025. From 2026 onward, there would be one wage for all workers. But that hasn’t happened yet. While the “yes” votes led “no” votes 55 percent to 45 percent on election day, nothing is official. 

Because of its unique relationship with the District, Congress has a chance to interfere with the measure during its 30-day review period for D.C. legislation. Even if Congress doesn’t act, the D.C. Council could overturn the measure. A supermajority of the 13-member Council, Attorney General Karl Racine, and Mayor Muriel Bowser oppose 77. A similar referendum passed and was then overturned in Maine in 2017. 

Initiative 77 received the most support from voters in largely African-American neighborhoods outside of Northwest, D.C., according to Board of Elections data. The ballot question itself was confusing (scroll down to see it annotated). 

Tense is a euphemism for the battle that took place leading up to the vote. Proponents of 77 believe eliminating the tipped minimum wage will make wage theft enforcement more clear cut, elevating a class of workers they say earn poverty wages. Local opponents say tipped workers already earn well over minimum wage. National interest groups on both sides moved mountains of money hoping to sway Washingtonians. Town hall meetings and panel discussions devolved into CNN-esque shouting matches. Delicate topics like race, gender, inequality, wage theft, and sexual harassment were at the center of the debate. Anti-77 “Save Our Tips” and pro-77 “One Fair Wage” campaign posters bombarded voters’ eyes. 

The name of the anti-77 campaign, funded in large part by the National Restaurant Association and Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, may have contributed to the confusion because 77 doesn’t outlaw tips. Rather, the slogan “Save Our Tips” refers to the idea held by opponents that if 77 becomes law, restaurants will either have to institute a mandatory service fee or raise prices significantly to accommodate increased labor costs, both of which they say could reduce take-home pay for tipped workers. 

Habberstad believes the party of eight she took care of thought she was already earning $15 an hour, even though it’s not 2025. The only system-wide raise tipped workers received recently is the 56-cent boost in the tipped minimum wage, unrelated to 77, that went from $3.33 to $3.89 on Sunday. 

The passage of 77 and the confusion over its implementation can’t be blamed for every instance a customer doesn’t tip. There have always been diners who don’t tip, and unless a patron comments about 77, it’s impossible to tell whether the ballot initiative drove them to leave no gratuity. 

But even though nothing has drastically changed, restaurant workers are already noticing a downward trend in their tips. 

“Ever since it passed, there have been more than a few [people who haven’t tipped],” says Kingfisher bartender Peter Pruitt. “I understand during the course of a shift, you get some people that do not tip generally. But it’s more prevalent. I had two customers that said, ‘Hey man, sorry 77 passed, you’re not getting a tip.’” 

Pruitt roughly calculates that there has been a 20 percent increase in people not tipping since the election, despite the fact that the basement bar in Logan Circle hasn’t raised its prices or added a service fee. “People could do their research and figure out that yes, the bill passed, but there’s still room for it to be appealed,” he says. “It hasn’t been enacted yet. Things have not changed. We’re still the same people. Please treat us as such.”

City Paper obtained receipts with little to no tip from a handful of other bars and restaurants including District Anchor and Local 16. At the latter establishment, bartender Alex Béjean has receipts for $0 on an $83.50 bill; $0 on a $21 bill; $2 on a $54 bill; and $0 on a $17 bill all from June 26 through July 1.

Joey Allen, who works some shifts as a manager and other shifts as a tipped worker at Jake’s American Grill in Chevy Chase, has also seen a handful of receipts with zero tips since June 19. One was for $53, another $31. “They’re thinking that they voted to abolish tipping,” Allen says, referring to customers. “One woman said, ‘Thank god I don’t have to tip anymore.’” Another said, “This initiative just passed, so I didn’t put a tip on there,” according to Allen. 

“I’ll clarify that it’s not good tippers who are doing this,” Allen continues. “It’s the people that were never good tippers. For the most part, my servers and bartenders are getting tips from regulars. It’s people that may have never been here before or who are from another part of town. We’re a neighborhood bar.” 

“Tipping culture in D.C. is complicated depending on where you are in the city,” Allen says. He wants patrons to know tips are people’s livelihoods. “When you don’t tip at all or you’re waiting on this $15 an hour [change], you’re slashing people’s income by 75 percent or more,” he says. “It’s such detail-oriented work. There are 15 baby birds screaming at you and you have to make this drink well and put in other orders. Doing all that work for nothing is going to be hard on the industry.” 

Joseph Hudson bartends at Nellie’s Sports Bar. He says he’s been serving people who leave no tip for years, so he can’t firmly blame 77 for him being shorted a few times since the election. He has two receipts that show zero tip on checks for $20 and $16. “It’s hard to tell, but 77 definitely muddies the waters,” Hudson says. “I presume some people think the situation is resolved—that I get $15 an hour now. But that’s not the case. I think people are really confused.” 

Across town in Navy Yard, Bluejacket manager Matt Brown says a number of his servers encountered questions from curious customers, putting them in the awkward situation of discussing tips directly with diners. One night, three separate tables Brown describes as “friendly” asked in good faith whether or not they still need to tip since 77 passed.

“The server can’t say that people should tip,” he says. “You can’t say that at a table. It’s a tough one. What people need to understand is what we’ve been saying the whole time. We make more than that. Even if we do make minimum wage, you should still be tipping.”

He says his team continues to have frequent talks about 77 and its possible implementation. “We’ve been talking about it left and right,” he says. “Here we go. This is where it starts. We’re nervous.” 

Habberstad echoes his trepidation. “At the end of the day, I’m not going to be out of house and home because of this one situation,” she says, referring to the table that left her a 4 percent tip after congratulating her on her raise. “But it is a little bit nerve-wracking for that to happen not even two weeks [after 77 passed]. It makes you nervous. Hopefully it’s not a pattern.”