After spending some time talking to people in the service industry, I feel strongly enough on Initiative 77 to write an editorial opinion. If you’re still on the fence, please read this post and the linked information. A special thank you to Lauren Ulrich, Stephanie Hulbert and Tony Tomelden for taking the time to explain their positions and for sharing their stories.
- It’s misleading.
Initiative 77 is worded thusly on your ballot. Per Ballotpedia:
” A yes vote is a vote in favor of gradually increasing the minimum wage for tipped employees to the city’s standard minimum wage by 2026.
A no vote is a vote against gradually increasing the minimum wage for tipped employees to the city’s standard minimum wage by 2026″
Sounds great, right? We want everyone to be paid AT LEAST minimum wage! However, what this simplified wording fails to explain is that front-of-house workers DO get paid minimum wage to begin with. There is a subminimum wage set at $3.33 per hour that the front of the house receives and the rest of their daily earnings come from tips. However, if there is a slow night, the restaurant compensates the employee the full federal minimum wage in their paycheck. The back of the house staff is salaried or gets federal minimum wage. It’s complex: Simplifying it only leads to confusion.
There are few things more insulting to DC residents –whether native-born or dyed-in-the-wool transplants– than having people from out of town trying to tell us that we don’t exist; that we don’t count; that we should just become part of Maryland. This intrusion from New York State-based Restaurant Opportunities Centers United,* is just one more from outsiders who don’t know our District. Stephanie Hulbert from the Tune Inn states simply: “This is insulting.” Most restaurants in DC are privately owned by one person or by a small restaurant group. Let’s count the number of chain restaurants in our area: A Buffalo Wild Wings at Navy Yard and the Denny’s on Bladensburg, plus a few Pains Quotidiens. The rest of the places we patron are owned by the people who tend bar or who make your meal, starting with the place that put Barracks Row on the map in the first place: Rose’s Luxury. These are small-business owners who need your support in helping reject a ballot item that they do not want or need. Opening a restaurant is a risky proposition anywhere; in DC, high rents and high prices do not give a restaurant owner a cushion of time to figure out how to work out kinks. If you add to that the fact that many of our local restaurants incorporate fresh ingredients and help sustain local farms, you understand our restaurant culture is doing something special. Saying that local restaurateurs are being greedy or refusing to do right by their employees as a whole is like saying Leah Daniels is a “Fat Cat” who doesn’t deserve a break on her commercial property tax. In addition to restaurant owners being our friends, they are each other’s friends: They support one another’s efforts and collaborate: the back of the house supports the front’s efforts to keep the status quo. Many restaurant employees do not live in the District. Their lack of vote in this issue is akin to Taxation Without Representation.
- There are better ways to insure employees are being treated fairly.
We all want people to be safe at work – especially people of color and women. One of the best arguments from ROC United regarding the elimination of tipped wages is that it would eliminate the pressure of feeling like you have to put up with sexual harassment or bad behavior from patrons to earn your wages. This is a very serious and pressing concern that has to do more with the environment of a restaurant and with our systemic racism and sexism as a society. A problem that, as Starbucks found out the hard way, is worth closing down all your 8000 shops for a day to address. But dealing with systemic problems such as this one also begins with having a good relationship between your employees and your employer. Lauren Ulrich says she’s never had a problem with harassment at work. She knows that she can rely on the staff at Rose’s Luxury to side with her if a customer should ever cross a line. Stephanie more than supported Lauren’s view: “We build relationships with patrons. A place that’s privately owned [like the Tune Inn] becomes like your family.” Good restaurants protect their employees. Regarding the tipping system: It is flawed and it can contribute to a culture of corruption. Barred in DC also notes, “[77 is] way too broad and far-reaching to rectify the…real issue of some tipped workers at some DC restaurants who aren’t in the position to complain about wage theft.” However, there are better ways to tackle this problem and fulfill the needs of our local restaurants than letting an outsider group come and tell us how to run our city. (See above.)
- Doing away with tips is harder than it looks.
Just ask Sam and Aphra Adkins, the owners of Sally’s Middle Name, who decided they would not accept tips when they opened in early 2016, instead opting to add a set gratuity to a customer’s bill. By October, they did away with the tipping system. Why? According to the article, “[Aphra] further explains that it can take a while to build a strong customer base as a new restaurant, and at times, the farm fresh eatery wasn’t busy enough to warrant paying higher than normal wages.” Stephanie further explained that if the phasing out of the subminimum wage goes into effect, “they will put a cap on our earning potential.” Since the tips given by customers are voluntary, they do not go directly to the restaurant but instead are divided among front of house staff. Even if there is no true perceived price difference for a customer– the difference between leaving a 20% tip and getting charged a 20% surcharge by the restaurant– in the latter case, it is the restaurant who keeps the money directly. Many servers feel that this is money rightfully theirs– a commission based on good service. In other parts of the country where the subminimum wage has been phased out, the results have been mixed. A piece by NPR from two years ago discusses how many restaurants who did away with tipping eventually returned to it. A more recent piece by Forbes discusses a white paper and its findings in regards to how doing away with the tiered wages system has adversely affected restaurant growth.
- Most of the Council of DC and Mayor Bowser oppose Initiative 77.
The Council is split on the actual issue of how to possibly introduce a change to a non-tipped wage system– our more progressive councilmembers are in favor of introducing legislation to change the system, but only Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) is fully supportive of Initiative 77. Elissa Silverman (I-At-Large), who supports overhauling the tipped system recently told WAMU, “Having restaurants, particularly locally-owned small businesses, absorb the increase of $11 per hour per employee in six years seems like an abrupt cost-shift.” Yesterday, Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7) released a statement where he said passing an initiative such as this one would adversely affect the developing restaurant economy of Wards 7 and 8.
- Restaurant owners and workers know more than you think. When Tony Tomelden, owner of The Pug, Brookland’s Finest and Union Trust, engaged pro-77 activists on Twitter, he did not imagine he’d have to endure a long list of insults. The embedded tweet below is just one of them:
— The Pug (@thepugdc) June 1, 2018
Tony has also been accused of being a scab and more. For a DC-born and raised guy who saw his dad hold the line for two years at Eastern Air Lines, it’s clear that these insults are just vicious and empty, and an indication that we need to inform ourselves better and look at things coolly. Tony’s seen restaurants open and close and understands the District well. He is representative of owners across the area, who want you to listen to what they have to say. Stephanie at the Tune Inn wants to educate people more on the industry’s position. This coming Monday, June 11, they will host an open forum on Initiative 77 starting at 7 p.m. Make sure you stop by and ask questions yourself!
- It’s misleading.
* A note on ROC: It’s odd that they tend to quote only their own studies and seem to have no third-party statistics to back them up. You can read an article at WCP highlighting a think tank that is fact-checking them.