When a conference full of attendees from foreign countries came to a hotel near the establishment where I worked, I was worried I wasn’t going to be able to pay my rent that month.
The reason? I’m a bartender who works for tips, and when I serve patrons from countries who don’t know about American tipping culture, I don’t get paid. I don’t blame my customers, who probably believed we were being paid professional wages just like waiters in their countries. They didn’t know that I was depending on their tips to earn a living wage. It ended up being a bad week for everyone in the restaurant.
This kind of story isn’t unusual. It’s why as a bartender, I support a full minimum wage for tipped restaurant workers. And as such laws make their way onto ballots in states across the nation, including New York, it’s more important than ever to get the word out about why we must fix the current system.
I work in a trendy and bustling neighborhood in downtown Washington, DC, my home for nearly two decades. I’ve been working in the city’s restaurant industry for seven years, starting off as a hostess and now working as a bartender. This Tuesday, DC heads to the polls to decide whether restaurants should be required to pay staff a $15 minimum wage; under the current system, staff make a sub-minimum wage and are expected to make up the rest of their salary with tips. Many of my co-workers and I voted yes on this initiative, which passed in June but could be overturned by the DC City Council. This law will help all tipped workers, the majority of whom struggle to make ends meet.
I’m not going to use my real name for this essay. My support for this law, called Initiative 77, means I face retaliation at the restaurant where I work. Our leadership opposes it because they say the increased labor cost would make it impossible for them to maintain their current level of service to patrons and that they’ll increase prices to accommodate this.
Some of my industry colleagues have come out strongly against minimum wage because of the deceptive rhetoric and propaganda of their employers who are telling them they won’t be able to stay open due to increased costs. Fearmongering of the loss of livelihood has caused many to engage in vitriolic rhetoric against anyone who is perceived as a threat. Patrons have been shouted at and complete strangers attacked and targeted online for their views. Friendships have been lost and professional careers have been put in jeopardy, all due to us supporting one fair wage.
Additionally, restaurant workers in the opposition have organized to give the illusion that they speak for the whole. But the lines of division on this issue are driven in part by class — restaurant workers in high-end, high-volume establishments in wealthier areas of the city can expect generous tips in a way that workers in lower-end, lower-volume establishments simply can’t.
Should the law take effect, it would provide greater economic security for DC’s roughly 29,000 tipped workers. Currently, employers are only required to pay a “tipped sub-minimum wage” — a pitiful $3.33 an hour — as long as when customers’ tips are added, the workers receive at least the full minimum wage. This is an antiquated pay model that’s been frozen in time for more than 20 years.
Wage theft by employers is real in this city, and those most impacted are almost always people like me: People of color, foreign-born, and female workers make up 66 percent of the restaurant industry’s workforce. A minimum wage would reduce these abusive instances by gradually eliminating the unjust two-tier wage system for tipped workers. Here in DC, initiative 77 would require that employers pay all workers the full minimum wage of $15 by 2026.
Surviving off tips is highly unreliable
As an industry veteran, I know what it means to survive off tips, not a salary. It’s incredibly difficult. Our managers are benefiting from cheap labor and passing the cost off to the patron when restaurant owners and managers can and should be paying their staff a fair wage. It means that owners and managers minimize their liabilities while pushing risk onto tipped workers like me.
Living on tips does not guarantee me a sufficient income or economic security. Tipped workers experience a poverty rate nearly twice that of other workers. Currently, the median hourly wage for servers in DC is only $11.89. Even with tips included, many of my colleagues in this business still cannot make ends meet. In a city like DC, it’s estimated that one needs to make more than $80,000 a year to afford the rent of a studio apartment, groceries, and ordinary living expenses, so clearly, these earnings just won’t cut it for most of us.
Lots of variables impact my ability to make tips. If the weather is bad, fewer people dine at our restaurant, meaning I take home less. One restaurant owner I worked for stole my tips. I am one of the few success stories who was able to get my stolen wages back by going through the Department of Employment Services, but it was an emotionally draining process. (That restaurant owner is still operating.) And let’s not forget that, statistically speaking, people of color like me are often tipped less due to racist stereotypes.
Relying on customer tips results in unpredictable income and makes workers more vulnerable to being sexually harassed or discriminated against by the very customers on whose tips we depend. A business model where we rely almost entirely on the whim of customers to supply our income is inherently one-sided. That means when a patron is having a bad day, I could end up going home without the money I earned. Many of us do.
Industry leaders are circulating falsehoods that the industry will fail or workers will lose their tips if a minimum wage passes. But this law allows workers to receive a higher base wage plus tips, which results in higher total earnings for tipped workers. This isn’t some wild new idea: Seven states already make employers pay tipped workers the full minimum wage. Not only do patrons in those states still tip, but those workers are getting paid, on average, a higher wage than in non-minimum wage states.
And contrary to the restaurant industry’s claims, paying tipped workers the full minimum wage does not reduce growth. The restaurant industry itself predicts higher growth rates in states that passed a similar law compared to those with sub-minimum wages. Cities like San Francisco and Seattle, which are both raising their minimum wage to $15 an hour, have thriving restaurant industries. This will be a better deal not just for me but for everyone.
DC has a fantastic and profitable restaurant scene that continues to add jobs in full-service and fast-casual restaurants. But if these jobs are going to put DC workers like me on the path to the middle class, they need to pay the full minimum wage plus tips.
Anonymous is a bartender in Washington, DC.