The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion D.C. restaurants can’t afford another setback

Diners eat at socially distanced outdoor tables at El Centro D.F. restaurant in D.C. on May 5. (Allison Shelley for The Washington Post)
5 min

Kathy E. Hollinger is the president and chief executive of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.

Signs of spring are popping up around D.C. Warmer temperatures are drawing people outdoors, masks are coming off and neighborhood restaurants are seeing more foot traffic. Hopefully, these are early indicators that the worst of the coronavirus pandemic that has gripped us over the past two years might finally be easing.

For D.C. restaurants, it has been a tough haul. Our food scene had flourished over the past decade, with exciting new independent restaurants popping up across all neighborhoods, making us a true national culinary destination. More than 90 percent of D.C.’s full-service restaurants are independently owned and operated. They are run by people who live and work here and are invested in their neighborhoods. They are used to the ups and downs of running a business, and their employees are equally dedicated and love what they do.

The past two years were brutal. Many of our favorite local establishments have closed their doors for good, and many others are barely hanging on. Those that have been fortunate to keep their doors open are still digging out of a financial hole created by months of closures. They were excited to have more employees back to work as locals and visitors returned to dining indoors and enjoying being out and about.

Now, just as D.C.’s restaurants are seeing some light and rebuilding, they could be facing more hardships. Initiative 82 on the November ballot seeks to eliminate the tip credit for tipped employees. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is not new. In 2018, an outside, well-funded interest group got Initiative 77 on the D.C. ballot. If it had become law, Initiative 77 would have mandated that employers eliminate the tip credit for employees who earn tipped income, instead requiring that tipped workers be paid the full minimum wage by the restaurant, without regard to the amount of tips received by the tipped employee. The measure was confusing and misleading to voters, but it passed.

Fortunately, tipped employees opposed the measure because they knew they would make significantly less if the tip credit were eliminated. They rallied together in great numbers in the Save Our Tips campaign to protest the unintended consequences of Initiative 77. The D.C. Council heard their concerns and repealed the regulation. Four years later, the same special interests are recycling this bad idea in Initiative 82 — at the most vulnerable time for our small businesses and their employees.

Voters should listen to tipped workers again and reject this initiative outright.

On the surface, boosting tipped employee wages to $15 per hour might sound reasonable. In reality, it means completely upending a system that works well for tipped employees and will result in diminished earnings. With the current tip credit model, tipped employees average $26.54 per hour in D.C., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The current system guarantees that all tipped employees earn at least the minimum wage, but most earn significantly more. Tipped employees like the model of having a base wage with a greater earning potential, much as a salesperson enjoys a base salary plus an earned commission for their sales.

Most tipped employees fear that a higher base wage will impact their earning potential and, in the end, they will end up earning less than they earn now.

Understaffed restaurants are already an unfortunate reality as restaurants struggle to fill positions in the post-pandemic job market. Service is already hurting, and guests are feeling that. If Initiative 82 becomes law, it will result in skyrocketing cost hikes across the board for restaurants, which will inevitably result in higher menu prices, service charges, a smaller waitstaff and the remaining workers earning less. All of this affects the experience of our employees and our diners.

But don’t just take my word for it. As neighbors in our community who support and frequent our restaurants, I urge you next time you’re in your favorite establishment to ask your server, bartender or owner what they think of Initiative 82. Most likely, you’ll find that most servers, bartenders and other tipped employees don’t see themselves as minimum-wage earners. Their earnings cover their living expenses. Many have bought new cars, bought homes and put themselves or their children through college. Ask them whether they’d rather earn a higher base wage and less in tips. You’re likely to get a resounding “no!”

If the idea is to vote for something that helps workers, then spend time and ask the workers who live and work in D.C. what they want.

The special interests behind Initiative 82 view D.C. as a high-profile laboratory for economic experiments. It was a harmful proposition in 2018, and it’s a devastating one in 2022.

The best way D.C. voters can support their local servers and bartenders is to continue enjoying dining and drinking in our neighborhood establishments. That’s what will keep our doors open, our restaurant families happily employed and D.C.’s restaurant community vibrant.