I’ve Worked for Tips for 60 Years. DC Council Should Listen to the Voters Who Want to Raise My Wages

When people ask me when I’m going retire, my answer is always the same: About 15 minutes before I’m dead. I turn 70 this year, and I’ve been working in DC—always for tips—since I was 12. My first job, at the concession stand at Arena stage in the early ‘60s, was one of the better ones. My bosses were kind, and I got to watch the shows that came through town. By the time I got my second job, my wages were 66 cents an hour—not exactly the stuff nest eggs are made of.

Six decades later, I’ve watched this city get burned down and built back up. The Petworth row house I grew up in, on the corner of Upshur and 7th, now costs 75 times what it did when I was a kid. I’ve gone from concessions to catering, from cheap hole-in-the-walls to high-end establishments. I’ve always liked puzzles, and that’s basically what serving is: you need to make sure all the pieces—the people, the staff, the meals, the timing—fit together. The prize for solving that puzzle, day after day, has crept up to a minimum wage of $3.89, plus tips.

Even with tips, that isn’t enough to live on. Many of the places where I’ve worked have found ways to cut into our paychecks, taking a percentage off the top. Some people in the city still made good money working for tips, but a lot of us really struggled. That’s why I pushed for Initiative 77, which would raise the tipped minimum to match the actual minimum wage, to pass. It’s why I was happy when it did, and it’s why I’m so frustrated with the DC City Council now.

Last week, City Council Member Jack Evans—who represents the Ward where I go to work every week—introduced a bill to repeal Initiative 77. No compromise, no discussion, just a one-page bill to block the ballot initiative from ever becoming law. Even though the city voted for it overwhelmingly. Even though the slogan on D.C. license plates is about how often the city doesn’t get that chance (“No Taxation without Representation,” it reads). Even though the people who voted for it are also the people who stand to benefit the most: We’re more likely to be poor and black, and to live in the parts of the city where poverty is still rising. Even though the rest of the city is getting richer. Even though one of the Mayor’s signature agenda items is giving black workers a fair shot. Even though all we’re hoping for is a law that would mean we don’t have to worry about how to pay the bills if the rain or the heat keep people inside.

It’s hard to imagine what my life would have been like if I’d had that kind of stability for the entirety of my 58 years as a server. Maybe saving for retirement wouldn’t have been such a luxury. But it’s not just about me. I, along with a majority of DC voters in 7 out of 8 wards, support Initiative 77 because I feel like I have an obligation to leave the industry better than I found it, to make things a little easier for the folks who come up after me.

The obligation to make things better for the next generation isn’t mine alone—City Council shares it. In the District, people don’t get many chances to have their voices heard in a public way. When I started working, city residents had just won the right to vote for the president—almost 200 years after the county was founded. D.C. still doesn’t have a say in Congress, and Congress can still overturn our laws when they feel like it.

To see the city council robbing residents of an explicit expression of self-governing feels like a betrayal. I believe that all of us, no matter the position we hold, have an obligation to try to make things better for the future. If you serve in public office, that responsibility is even greater.

It doesn’t have to be hard. Voters already told you what to do. Initiative 77 asked a question and the voters gave a resounding answer: yes, all of our residents deserve a stable, living wage. Now you just have to listen.