The Washington, D.C., restaurant scene has reached soaring heights over the past few years. That prosperity—and the dining experiences we’ve grown accustomed to—has been built by working people putting in exhausting hours on the restaurant floor and behind the bar.
Working people deserve to receive a fair share of the wealth they help create. And they certainly deserve economic security while lifting up a booming industry.
Instead, servers and bartenders are being paid a $3.33 hourly wage, relying on customers’ unpredictable tips to make their living.
That leaves employees wildly vulnerable to harassment, discrimination and painfully low wages. Queer workers—especially women and people of color—are predictably at greater risk than most.
From blatant bigotry toward queer servers to increasingly common fits over any public utterance of Spanish to rampant sexual harassment, employees have been left at the mercy of less-than-stellar patrons.
Currently, when a worker’s tips don’t add up to minimum wage, the employer is obligated to make up for the rest. But that puts the onus on the most vulnerable workers to speak up and ask their managers to pay them their due. Through lax enforcement and coercive management tactics, that often doesn’t happen—leaving working people to survive off less than minimum wage in a crushingly expensive city.
The industry has been quick to obscure the economic reality their workers are facing. In his recent piece opposing Initiative 77, Mark Lee claimed that “tipped employees earn incomes well above minimum wage, typically totaling $25, $35 or more an hour.”
That simply isn’t true. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, tipped restaurant workers in the district earn approximately $11.81 per hour. There’s no reason these workers should be left behind. It’s time for them to earn a guaranteed $15 wage—just like their counterparts in every other industry—while continuing to collect tips.
It’s a commonsense notion. The National Restaurant Association’s own internal polling found that 7 in 10 Americans support a higher minimum wage. What’s more, they’re willing to pay more for their meals to make it happen.
But the broken status quo has some deep-pocketed allies. Restaurant and bar owners have rushed to funnel money—and press their employees—into a wrong-headed campaign against the best interests of D.C.’s LGBT community.
We have a chance to break through those efforts. This Pride Month, we can make sure the voices of queer workers are heard loud and clear at the ballot box.