I Used to Work as a Server – and That’s Why I’m Voting YES on Initiative 77
Washington, D.C., is getting ready to vote on Initiative 77, a ballot proposal that would raise the tipped wage in D.C. — the wage employers can pay their tipped workers, which is currently $3.33 an hour — to the standard minimum wage, currently $12.50 an hour, while leaving tips intact and giving businesses eight years to make the adjustment. I’m voting yes – because as a woman who spent years as a tipped worker, I’ve seen firsthand the harms that come from having a substandard wage.
No one should have to worry they won’t make enough money to pay rent, eat, or take care of their family just because the person who is paying their wages had a lousy day or worse — discriminated against them because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. But the latter is the reality that many tipped workers deal with on a daily basis – quite possibly the majority, if you consider that about half of tipped workers in the District are women and close to three-quarters are people of color.
Flexibility – to work more, and still not earn enough
I’ve worked as a server at several different restaurants over the course of my career. As a younger working person, I liked the flexibility it gave me to work more hours if I wanted. I happily bought into the idea that managers and owners sell to workers: that serving is a way to make above minimum wage by picking up “good” shifts like a weekend brunch or Friday dinner rush.
But the actual reality of working in a restaurant? Many times I didn’t even make the regular minimum wage while working. Even when I worked at a successful D.C. restaurant chain, I remember many slow weekday mornings where I opened the store at 7 a.m. and then worked until 4 p.m. without breaks, trying to make sure I took home enough to cover my bills that month. If I didn’t make enough during the week, I often picked up doubles on the weekends, sometimes working 12 hours or more back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday. Despite hustling to pick up all those hours, I still barely made my rent many months and depended on discounted employee meals to feed myself most days. If I was struggling to make it work, what was happening to servers down the road at less successful establishments?
Depending on other people’s good will doesn’t pay the bills
But don’t get me wrong – being busy doesn’t save you from the plethora of other reasons why you might not end up getting tipped at the end of someone’s meal. When your income is based on trusting someone else to “do the right thing,” it’s like inviting bias to dock your wages. Who wants their pay to be determined based on whether the person paying you is in a crummy mood that day, doesn’t like the way you look, or is just straight up bigoted? This is what tipped workers have to deal with and worry about every day when they depend almost entirely on tips to make ends meet.
Currently, tipped workers in D.C. are far more likely to live in poverty than other workers. In May 2017, when D.C.’s minimum wage was $11.50 per hour and the tipped wage was $2.77, the median hourly wage for restaurant servers including tips was just $11.86. But here’s the good news: in the eight other states that have passed laws like Initiative 77, poverty rates are much lower for tipped workers (and so are gender wage gaps!).
It’s also no surprise that this environment is a breeding ground for sexual harassment. When you depend on a customer leaving you a good tip, and your managers viewing you as a hard worker who doesn’t complain so you get the good shifts, you think twice about whether you’re going to report the creepy guy at your table commenting on your looks or touching you inappropriately. When it happened to me, I certainly didn’t feel empowered to do so. When I did attempt to bring a situation up, I was either told to deal with it, or to let someone else take my table and therefore my money. It’s not an easy choice.
You know what is an easy choice though? Voting YES on Initiative 77 on June 19. I’m voting yes for every mom I worked with who had to take those slow shifts in the morning so they could pick their kid up from child care on time. I’m voting yes for my co-workers who faced racial bias every day when they went to work and hoped that it didn’t mean not making their rent that month. I’m voting yes for everyone I worked with who was harassed by their customers and felt they couldn’t speak out. I’m voting yes because it’s what’s right: for workers, and for our community.