I wish I didn't have to write this. In fact, I'd rather be doing anything else with my day off than writing about my job, but here we are, so let's chat.
I'm a bartender. I grew up in the Washington area, and I'm worried about my livelihood. Across the country and here in the District, there is a push by well-meaning progressives (among whom I would count myself) to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. And that's great.
What isn't great is the well-intentioned but uninformed push to remove what's called the tip credit. That's a wonky term, but at its core, the tip credit is this really cool thing that allows restaurants to pay tipped employees less per hour than the minimum wage, under the assumption that we'll make up the difference in tips. The tip credit carries with it a caveat that requires our restaurants to pay us the remainder of that minimum wage if for some reason we don't earn it in tips.
This allows for restaurants to keep their menu prices reasonable, properly staff a Saturday night and actually turn a profit. Makes sense, right?
Unfortunately, this pay structure is in danger. There seems to be this myth going around that most tipped employees in restaurants aren't earning a livable wage; after 13 years in the industry, this baffles me completely. I earn roughly $45 an hour with tips included; I don't know a single server or bartender in the District whose wages have to be supplemented because they haven't earned the minimum.
So what happens when the tip credit disappears, as some in the District would like? Restaurant profit margins are already often razor-thin, and to be forced to pay the largest (and already highest-earning) portion of a staff four times more than before creates a real accounting problem. Generally, it means you need to bring in more money in sales and cut costs elsewhere. This translates to jacking up menu prices and laying off staff. Whom would this help?
Next, once menu prices have soared and staff has been cut, tips will dwindle. Remember, your weekly budget doesn't change just because I got a raise. Within a few years, I'd be surprised if anyone tipped at all, and without tips, the incentive to give good service would be nonexistent. The great American bar culture would die. That would be a real tragedy.
Two summers ago, a post from a respected colleague came across my news feed. It said that the D.C. Council was sneaking language into the new minimum-wage increase that removed the tip credit. And the vote was the next week. I was shocked and angry. I organized with the DC Nightlife Hospitality Association and was able to take the fight to the council and make sure it heard bartenders' and servers' side of things. I testified and answered questions on a panel. The "one fair wage" people were adamant that I needed to be saved, so I reminded them that every time they give me a "raise," someone in the back of the house, who definitely needs it more, won't get one.
The D.C. Council agreed that the tip credit should stay. The result was that by 2020 the non-tipped minimum wage would rise to $15 per hour, and the tipped wage would rise to $5 per hour. I thought I could rest easy. Unfortunately, my well-meaning but ultimately out-of-touch counterparts have again surfaced a ballot initiative to remove the tip credit in the District.
Fortunately, I have allies this time, because I realized I wasn't the only one fighting to protect our way of life. In states such as Michigan, Massachusetts, New York and Minnesota, the tip credit is under attack or efforts to create one have been stymied by well-intentioned labor groups. I've connected with servers who've fought their own fights, and we've formed the first nationwide nonprofit devoted to protecting our livelihood: the Restaurant Workers of America.
Here's what's next: The RWA will work throughout the country to educate industry workers and the public on why we don't want a "raise." Being a tipped employee in the United States is one of the few remaining pathways to the middle class without a college degree. We're good. We don't need saving or anyone's pity. We'd like your tips instead.
There's an old colloquialism that comes to mind. Maybe you've heard it: "If it ain't broke. . . ."
The writer, a bartender in the District, is a founding member of the Restaurant Workers of America.
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