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Mayor Muriel Bowser is expected to introduce legislation to the D.C. Council later this week that would gradually increase the District’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020, as she announced last month. But though her administration has not yet made details of such a bill public, advocates and restaurant industry leaders are expressing competing concerns over the potential inclusion of tipped workers in any such wage expansion.
On Tuesday afternoon, members of Restaurant Opportunities Center United plan to deliver a proclamation to the mayor, calling for the District to eliminate the tipped-minimum system. Under this arrangement, tipped workers like restaurant servers are entitled to a lower base minimum wage that their employers are required to supplement if tips do not bring their hourly wage up to the general minimum.
In D.C., these minimums are currently $2.77 and $10.50, respectively. ROC United co-founder Saru Jayaraman says many businesses flout this standard, citing data from the U.S. Department of Labor that showed upwards of 80 percent of restaurants it investigated across the U.S. did not comply.
“Think about it this way: What would it be like for you for your income to depend on the happiness of the people you serve?” Jayaraman says. “We’re calling for one fare wage. It doesn’t have to happen overnight.”
After visiting the Wilson Building, ROC United says its supporters will march to the Ronald Reagan Building, where the National Restaurant Association is holding its 2016 public affairs conference. The group claims that the association “has funded efforts to exclude tipped workers—more than two-thirds of whom are women—from local, state, and federal minimum-wage laws.” A slight majority of the D.C.-metro area’s tens of thousands of tipped workers are women, according to ROC United. Jayaraman adds that seven states have already gotten rid of the tipped-minimum system, including California, Oregon, Montana, and Washington state.
A spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association said of today’s planned demonstration, “ROC has continuously used back-door tactics and well-funded publicity stunts to disrupt public order and disparage America’s restaurants.”
It’s unclear whether the District would join the jurisdictions that have voided the tipped-minimum system under Bowser’s bill. A spokesperson for the mayor told City Desk on Monday, “We’re still engaging with a variety of stakeholders while we finalize the legislation.” He added that the mayor’s office would “make an announcement later this week.” Meanwhile, a measure that may appear on the November ballot would establish a $15-an-hour minimum wage for all workers, including tipped ones. Supporters of the initiative are currently working to collect more than 24,000 signatures before the July deadline.
Some trade groups appear worried that upping the tipped minimum would render D.C. businesses less competitive. In Maryland and Virginia, the statewide tipped-minimum wages are $3.63 and $2.13 an hour, respectively; in these states, the general minimum wages are $8.25 and $7.25 an hour. (Notably, the Montgomery County Council is considering a bill that would raise the minimum wage there to $15 an hour by 2020; the county raised the tipped minimum to $4 an hour last year.)
Following Bowser’s announcement, Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington President Kathy Hollinger said in a statement that the group remains “concerned about further increases in the minimum wage,” but praised Bowser for proposing to convene a task force on the subject.
And in a release on Monday, the D.C. Nightlife Hospitality Association asked city leaders to “preserve and protect” the tipped-minimum system, through which—it said—workers rarely get less than $10.50 an hour. DCNHA Executive Director Mark Lee argued against a change in a letter to Bowser and the Council, saying it would cause patrons to reduce and “eventually stop tipping for service,” would “destroy well-compensated jobs and careers,” and would reduce “the pay of tipped workers to only a minimum wage level.”
For her part, Jayaraman said restaurant workers who make well-above the general minimum wage do not represent most servers. “We’re talking about Denny’s, and IHOP, and Applebee’s, largely,” she said.
A recent D.C. Vote-Washington City Paper poll found that a strong majority of residents support increasing the minimum wage through the ballot initiative route. It did not ask whether they would support raising the tipped-minimum.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery