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Opinion End the tipped wage to help back-of-house staff

A worker serves drinks at Mr. Henry's in D.C. in 2020. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

Tim Linaberry works in D.C.'s restaurant industry.

The D.C. hospitality industry is gearing up for another battle over eliminating the tipped wage. The concept of a tipped wage, now $5.05 in D.C., comes from the archaic 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which allows employers to pay tipped employees less than the minimum wage. Initiative 82, essentially a replica of the passed but repealed Initiative 77, would require D.C. businesses to raise the hourly wage for tipped workers incrementally over the next five years until it reaches the standard D.C. minimum wage. The minimum wage is $15.20 but will be $16.10 in July.

As someone who has been entrenched in D.C.’s restaurant scene for the better part of the past decade, I understand the argument against the initiative. Servers and bartenders in D.C. have well-paid positions that provide a decent living, even though the city has one of the most expensive housing and rental markets in the country. The concern that employers will have to dramatically shift their business models to account for increased labor budgets is not unwarranted and will no doubt have a significant effect on the future of hospitality in D.C. However, only one side of this proposed change is being discussed. The dominant narrative surrounds mainly the potential impacts for the front-of-house employees, ignoring the other, often forgotten and consistently marginalized half of the restaurant: the back-of-house staff.

With the pay structure of most restaurants, a majority of the labor budget goes to pay the back-of-house staff an hourly rate usually at or just above the minimum wage. Employers pay the front-of-house staff the tipped wage knowing that gratuities will make up most of their employees’ income. When gratuities are added to the tipped wage, employees’ take-home pay is typically much higher than the minimum wage. As a result, front-of-house workers typically have much higher incomes than those of workers in equivalent back-of-house positions, though wages are wildly variable. The average hourly pay difference between the front and back is nearly 2 to 1 in some restaurants. This disparity hardly seems fair and is part of the reason Initiative 82 needs to be passed.

While there is no doubt working in the front of house requires good people skills and social acumen, equivalent positions in the back of house often require extensive training, experience and schooling. In many cases, proper kitchen training requires high out-of-pocket costs, which often drop young cooks into debt. This unfortunate reality leads to a higher probability of career abandonment. Many will study, sweat and sacrifice to pursue their dreams of one day opening their own restaurant. But line cooks and sous chefs often become demoralized as they come to understand the unbalanced pay structure between the front of house and back. In fact, a surprisingly high number of back-of-house workers switch to front-of-house positions because they net much higher pay. Imagine how many delicious and creative dishes will never be conceptualized, developed or enjoyed because practical and pragmatic individuals are forced to prioritize personal profits over passion.

Ending the tipped wage might very well lead to a cultural shift away from voluntary tipping. Other countries have moved away from tipping as a form of legitimate income, so a plurality of alternatives already exist. We can implement mandatory service charges that can be spread among all restaurant employees. We can pay employees a static hourly rate or a salary that includes benefits and paid time off, as is done in nearly every other industry. Or we can negotiate flexible property rents that accurately reflect the variability of our dynamic industry.

Eliminating the tipped wage will shake D.C. restaurants to their core. It will not be smooth, nor will it be easy. It will be an end to business as usual for restaurant owners and operators who have, for too long, relied on a faulty formula for labor budgeting that perpetuates income inequality among their workforce. If Initiative 88 is passed, the solutions need not come immediately as the tipped wage will be gradually phased out, but the time to start reimagining restaurants is nigh.

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