In D.C., Some Workers Make $5.35 Per Hour. You Can Change That.

As it stands today, D.C. employers can pay tipped workers an unlivable wage of just $5.35 per hour, even though the District’s minimum wage is $16.10. 

This is unacceptable—and if you’re a D.C. voter, you have the power to change it. 

On November 8, voters in the District of Columbia will have the chance to vote on Initiative 82. If this initiative passes, it will ensure that by 2027, employers will have to pay the same minimum wage to tipped workers that they pay to anyone else, with tips on top. I encourage D.C. voters to do right by tipped workers again and vote YES on Initiative 82. 

Yep, I said “again”—because D.C. residents already voted in favor of fair wages for tipped workers back in 2018 with Initiative 77. I was working as the Director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of D.C. at the time and led that campaign, along with tipped professionals—women of color who lived the injustices of this subminimum wage system and wanted to change it for the better. We worked hard to get the word out and we won: Initiative 77 passed in 2018 with almost 56% of the vote.  

It was a popular ballot measure because it spoke to the injustices that tipped workers still experience during every single shift—and have experienced for centuries. The tipped minimum wage has a racist origin story: After the Civil War, employers used tipping to avoid paying wages to newly freed Black people, and federal law and the law in most states have never required employers to pay the full minimum wage to tipped workers. Today in D.C., the majority of tipped workers are women, and close to 40% are women of color. As a result of low wages, wage theft, and wildly variable tips, tipped workers in D.C. are nearly three times more likely to live in poverty than D.C.’s workforce overall—and women who have to rely mostly on tips for their pay report high rates of sexual harassment from patrons and coworkers. 

Nonetheless, the D.C. Council ignored the plight of tipped workers and the will of the people: Within four months of the election, led by Chairman Phil Mendelson, the Council overturned Initiative 77. They also took it upon themselves to repeat the misinformation parroted by the restaurant industry lobby (a.k.a. some of their biggest campaign donors), who claim that increasing wages will hurt their businesses and somehow reduce worker pay. The evidence proves otherwise: In states where employers pay the full minimum wage, before tips, tipped workers make more money… and restaurants still thrive 

Tipped professionals were forced to continue to struggle to make ends meet, and less than two years later, the COVID pandemic hit. Restaurant workers were among the first laid off. Many tipped workers did not qualify for unemployment benefits. Those who continued to work in restaurants suddenly became public health workers and had to enforce masking and distancing requirements with the very same customers they relied on for their tips. Sexual harassment and customer hostility also intensified during this period. Many workers did not think $5 per hour (in 2020) was worth the risk, and D.C. saw an exodus of workers from the restaurant industry.  

The COVID pandemic has been the greatest worker organizer in our lifetime. Some D.C. workers who had been against Initiative 77 felt lied to by their employers and came out in favor of base wages before tips; a 2021 poll showed support from roughly 9 in 10 tipped restaurant workers in D.C., an overwhelming majority. And one former tipped worker, who had been laid off at the beginning of the pandemic, decided to re-file the ballot initiative to finally get One Fair Wage in the District of Columbia.  

As someone who was deeply involved in Initiative 77 and has continued to work on economic, racial, and gender justice advocacy for restaurant professionals, I urge D.C. residents to vote YES on Initiative 82 and support tipped professionals, again. I urge the Council to respect the will of the voters and commit to implementing the initiative in full if it passes. And I applaud the brave restaurant professionals who had the courage of their convictions and envisioned a more equitable restaurant industry that works for everyone.  

Paid for by the National Women’s Law Center, 11 Dupont Circle NW, Washington, DC 20036. (<— D.C. law requires this statement and here at NWLC we follow the law. But to be clear, NWLC just pays my salary and I would say this for free.)