Some Americans are surprised to learn that minimum wage doesn’t actually equal minimum wage in the United States: It is, in fact, legal to pay people subminimum wage under specific circumstances. One of those is the tipped or “wait” wage, which allows employers in some states to pay food servers less than minimum wage on the grounds that their tips make up the difference.
If you think that sounds unjust, you’re not alone: Minimum wage campaigners are hard at work to eliminate the wait wage — and they just won a big victory in Washington, DC, with Initiative 77 .
In a series of phases, this ballot measure implemented a $15 minimum wage for hourly tipped workers — a dramatic increase from current tipped minimum wage of $3.89 hourly. That was not a typo: Tipped workers in Washington, DC can make as little at $3.89 an hour while serving food to the nation’s wealthy and powerful.
Voters liked the idea of ditching the tipped wage — a lot. In fact, 56 percent of voters approved it. Now, the DC Council wants to go against the clearly stated will of the people and overturn it.
One of the most bizarre things about the Initiative 77 campaign was a group of people identifying themselves as servers from the “Restaurant Workers of America” who came out against the initiative, claiming it would affect their bottom line. They were in fact conservative plants, some of whom don’t even live in DC. And many of their claims about lower earnings, reduced shifts and other issues aren’t supported by research.
The restaurant industry loves subminimum wage. After all, it allows them to cut their bottom line as much as possible. Low wages increase restaurant profits, while staff still pays taxes on tips. Restaurant jobs already have long hours, tough working conditions and few to no benefits. Some institutions even require staff to pool their tips. These wait staffers don’t even get to take the tips they earn home. Instead, they submit them to a “pool,” and the restaurant distributes them — or just keeps them, in a common form of wage theft.
For workers, a steady hourly wage is more predictable, allowing them to plan out their lives and focus on service — not panicking about tips. In fact, some people are joining a movement to abolish tips, arguing they’re bad for wait staff and not great for customers, either.
A fair wage for restaurant workers, though, is apparently something the DC Council doesn’t approve of. Republicans on the council are complaining that it’s causing “chaos” and that the issue is “too complicated” for the ballot, despite the fact that multiple cities — and states — have approved minimum wage increases via ballot measures.
Tellingly for a city that complains of taxation without representation, this is not the first time the city council has flouted the will of voters to pursue its own agenda. In 2001, it overturned a ballot initiative that would have implemented term limits for elected officials.
DC Council members are being supported by Congressional Republicans, who are trying to use federal legislation to block the measure in a shocking governmental overreach that would have had them crying foul if the tables had been turned.