WASHINGTON (AP) — A controversial proposal to change the pay structure for servers and other workers in Washington’s bars and restaurants was approved Tuesday, four years after an identical measure was struck down by the DC Council.
Initiative 82 eliminates the so-called tipping wage system in which restaurant owners pay certain staff members well below the minimum hourly wage of $16.10 on the assumption that the difference would be made up by tips from customers.
Currently, restaurant managers pay some employees wages as low as $5.35 an hour. If tips from employees for the night do not increase this income to the minimum, employers make up the difference.
This two-tier system will now be scrapped and employers will be required to pay each member of staff at least the minimum of $16.10 by 2027. With more than 40% of votes expected, the initiative received more than 66,000 votes in favor compared to about 22,000 votes against.
An identical initiative was approved in 2018 by voters in 2018. But it was almost immediately canceled by the DC Council and Mayor Muriel Bowser in a rare move that sparked accusations of clandestine influence from the association of local restaurants.
Several council members who voted to roll back the previous initiative have publicly said they would not do so again if the new measure were successful.
The issue sparked heated debate in the hospitality industry in 2018, and its revival has done the same this year, with pro and con campaign placards alongside those of mayoral or council candidates.
Proponents have claimed the change will provide protection and a level playing field for all employees, while opponents – including the local restaurant association – have warned that the extra spending will drive up costs, force smaller independent restaurants to close and incur additional charges that drive customers away and discourage high-end tipping.
The dynamic was more complex than the simple opposition between workers and management; the debate has divided restaurant and bar staff. Many servers and bartenders have objected because they currently earn well above the minimum on tips and fear that tips will go down if additional service charges are imposed.
Geoff Tracy, a prominent local chef with two restaurants in DC, opposed the measure, but stopped short of predicting it would result in layoffs or restaurant closures. Rather, he described it as giving the illusion of change without actually accomplishing much.
Tracy said servers and bartenders at her restaurants earned less than $6 an hour, but after tips, servers averaged $36 an hour and bartenders earned more than $40. He predicted that adding an extra $10 an hour to their base pay would simply force a new service charge, reduce tips, and ultimately everyone would earn roughly the same amount or less. .
“I’m not really a big fan of raising prices on my clientele,” Tracy said. “Really, the only beneficiary will be the District of Columbia, which is going to charge 6% taxes on all of these new service fees.”
Ryan O’Leary, one of the leaders of the pro-Initiative 82 campaign and a former tip waiter, said the initiative was meant to protect some of the most vulnerable members of the hospitality industry. O’Leary said the strongest internal opposition has come from “really established bartenders who are at the top of the pecking order.”
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