The Tipping Point.

AuthorNorris, Will

"... such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) ... [shall] become the Seat of the Government of the United States"


D.C.'s restaurant industry has previously defeated efforts to raise the minimum wage for restaurant workers. This year, advocates believe they have a winning campaign.

In Washington, D.C., and 43 states, restaurants and other businesses with tipped workers are not required by law to pay the full minimum wage outright, a concession to the restaurant lobby that goes back decades. Instead, employers can credit a portion of a worker's tips toward their obligation to pay minimum wage. But D.C. may soon join the small group of states--California, Minnesota, and Oregon among them--to eliminate this anachronistic system. This November, D.C. will vote on Initiative 82, which would gradually increase base pay for tipped workers over five years from $5.35 until it reaches the District's regular minimum wage, currently $16.10.

D.C.'s dining scene, replete with celebrity restaurateurs and two dozen Michelin-starred restaurants, is one of the country's most celebrated. But proponents of 1-82 say the industry's growth was built on an artificial labor subsidy that exploits workers. "Tips were intended to be an extra or bonus on top of a wage, not your primary source of income," Saru Jayaraman, the president of One Fair Wage, the national organization leading this effort, says. "Fundamentally, what is wrong with the system is the employers are not paying for the cost of the labor." Experts say the maddening unpredictability of wages from week to week makes long-term financial planning difficult for restaurant workers. "A system that's built on customers' whims for supplying the bulk of a person's income just leaves a lot up to chance," David Cooper, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, says. Leaving pay to the vagaries of customers means that Black and female restaurant workers in Washington get smaller tips than their white and male counterparts.

Federal law requires employers to make up the difference between the tipped wage and the standard minimum wage if tips fall short, but a 2012 Department of Labor compliance sweep of nearly 9,000 restaurants found 1,170 tip credit infractions. A full 84 percent of restaurants had some type of labor violation. Workers attest to this. "Something you sign up for when you sign up for this industry is you know that not all of the labor laws are going to be honored," Gillian Michalowski, a bartender at the downtown hotel bar Allegory, says. Simplifying the system by guaranteeing all workers the minimum wage up front would directly combat wage theft.

A poll commissioned by One Fair Wage, which is also running similar campaigns in Maine, New York, and several other states, found that 88 percent of D.C.'s tipped workers support 1-82. Voter support, too, is high.

But the interests arrayed against the initiative are formidable. The "No to 1-82" committee, backed by the National Restaurant Association (NRA), a lobby group, spent months unsuccessfully suing to keep 1-82 off the ballot, and a spokesperson with the campaign confirmed that they've exhausted all judicial means of stopping the initiative. But the fight is far from over: The committee has nearly 10 times as much cash on hand as the sponsors of 1-82. High-profile restaurateurs like Jose Andres are determined to see the initiative killed. "Now the focus really turns to a broader education campaign," the NRA...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT