More money for restaurant workers could mean more problems for them, says Ward 7 Councilman Vincent Gray, who opposes a minimum-wage initiative on the June 19 ballot.
If D.C. voters support Initiative 77, it would raise the minimum wage for tipped workers over the next eight years, ultimately reaching $15 per hour.
It would mean that all restaurant servers would be paid a minimum wage without counting tips.
“Moving to a new model in which tipped workers would get up to $15 an hour without regard to tips could also cause cuts in shifts and hours, throwing workers into further economic uncertainty and potentially eliminating jobs,” Gray argued in calling on voters to oppose Initiative 77.
“These unintended consequences could have the opposite effect of what this initiative intends to do for tipped workers,” he said.
District bar and restaurant workers are paid $3.33 an hour and can collect tips to make up the difference to the prevailing minimum wage, which now stands at $12.50 per hour.
The D.C. chapter of the Restaurant Opportunities Center sponsored Initiative 77 and continues to push its passage.
“You have to consider that when you are living off of tips, you’re constantly chasing the tips,” Jessica Yanez, with the Restaurant Opportunities Center, told WJLA-TV (Channel 7). “So that depends on location, price point, do you have a bar? Are you a man? Are you a woman? Are you young or attractive?”
Yanez said that’s why the change is needed.
“Because at the end of the day, the customer is the one that pays the wages, not the employer,” she said. “When you are paid $3.33 per hour, you’re valued at $3.33 per hour.”
But WJLA reported that a coalition of restaurant owners and servers are fiercely opposed to the idea and feel it would drive up menu prices, cost jobs, and ultimately force D.C. restaurants out of business.
“You know, we have to pay rent, we have to pay payroll, we have to pay taxes, and I think restaurants will close,” said Ris Lacoste, owner of Ris in northwest Washington’s West End neighborhood. “I just think the margins are that small, and it’s not something most of us can afford.”
Karim Soumah, a server at Ris, agreed, saying that tips are his livelihood.
“For me, tips help me because I believe if I bet on myself I’m more likely to walk away with more than $15 an hour,” he said. “What we do have is a very healthy tipping culture in Washington as it stands.”
Yanez argues that customers could still tip, even if servers and bartenders were making $15 per hour.
Meanwhile, Gray remains steadfast against the proposal.
“If Initiative 77 passes, I am concerned it would hurt our tipped workers and discourage restaurants from opening in areas like Ward 7 on the East End of the District,” he said.
Wards 7 and 8 already are food deserts and requiring a minimum wage for tipped workers could easily scare off restaurants from opening because operating costs would be raised, rendering it difficult if not impossible for restaurants to make ends meet, Gray said.
The councilman and former mayor said efforts are aggressively underway to attract restaurants to shopping centers like Skyland Town Center which is under construction, the Shops at Penn Hill, Parkside where new housing is being built rapidly, and Deanwood where a new town center is underway that includes a recently inked commitment by a restaurant to locate there.
“It has been a major challenge to attract the amenities everyone wants and deserves to this area of our city,” Gray said. “I fear that Initiative 77 will scare off the very businesses we are trying to attract. It has been hard enough to induce sit-down restaurants to locate to Ward 7. Initiative 77 seems like a prescription for failure.”