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Opinion Why eliminating the tipped wage is a bad idea for D.C.

A waiter delivers food in D.C. on May 29, 2020. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

District voters might feel a sense of deja vu over a hotly debated ballot initiative to change how tipped workers are paid. After all, the city’s voters passed a very similar measure in 2018 with 55 percent of the vote, before the D.C. Council overturned it. We opposed Initiative 77 in 2018. This year’s Initiative 82 is even riskier, given the fraught economic climate.

Currently, D.C’s minimum wage for tipped workers is $5.35 per hour, compared with $16.10 for other workers. No employee can lawfully earn less than the full hourly minimum: If tips do not make up the difference, restaurants and employers bridge the gap.

Initiative 82 would tear up this model by gradually raising the tipped minimum wage to $16.10 by 2027. Proponents argue that it would stabilize incomes, reduce wage theft on the part of employers and put less pressure on service workers to tolerate customer abuse.

But can businesses withstand what would essentially be a threefold increase in labor costs over just five years? Even in normal times, this would be challenging: Employers would likely be forced to reduce hours, cut jobs, relocate to other jurisdictions or transfer higher costs to consumers.

And these are far from normal times. The covid-19 pandemic decimated D.C.’s dining and nightlife scene, with hundreds of restaurants, bars and clubs closing their doors or moving out of the city. In response, the D.C. government spent tens of millions of dollars to prop up the hospitality industry. Now, after more than two difficult years, brick-and-mortar businesses are only just emerging from crisis mode and starting to rebuild. As D.C. Council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) — whose ward would be among the most affected by the measure — warns, this is an inopportune moment to mandate dramatic changes to their business models. Passing Initiative 82 this year could put the city’s economy and workers at risk.

Furthermore, the proposed system would almost certainly guarantee higher menu prices at a time of sky-high inflation and rising food costs. That would put more financial pressure on D.C. residents and deprive working families of opportunities to dine out — or even order takeout — on special occasions. Tipped workers are also increasingly speaking out about their qualms: Many stand to earn less if customers tip lower amounts or restaurants institute mandatory service charges, which are shared with backroom workers.

As the debate around Initiative 82 heats up, we hope more city officials and leaders add their voices to the chorus opposing it. Eliminating the tipped minimum wage was a bad idea in 2018, and it is an even worse idea now. And this time, the D.C. Council is unlikely to intervene: In contrast to the 2018 vote, which took place in a primary election, Initiative 82 will be on the ballot in November’s general election, making it harder to argue that the eventual result will not represent D.C. voters’ true feelings. All the more reason for voters to listen to the broad range of people and groups standing against it.

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