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A Higher Minimum Wage for Tipped D.C. Restaurant Workers Wins by a Landslide

The newly approved Initiative 82 will essentially do away with the city’s “tipped minimum” wage

Daily Life In Chicago Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Tierney Plumb is the editor of Eater DC, covering all things food and drink around the nation's capital.

Despite debate over its negative impacts on restaurants and their employees, an overwhelming majority of D.C. voters want service workers who rely on tips for the majority of their incomes to have a higher minimum wage.

Initiative 82 was approved with over 74 percent of the vote on Tuesday, which means D.C. will eliminate its two-tiered minimum wage. Under the new system, which kicks in next year, the sub-minimum wage of $5.35 will rise by a dollar (or two) every year until it meets the D.C. standard.

Restaurant employers currently pay a percentage of D.C.’s minimum wage ($16.10), and tips make up the rest. The voters have decided to change that, which means the entire minimum wage will be paid out by the employer by 2027. Supporters believe the measure would reduce wage theft and boost pay, while opponents argue it will hurt independent restaurants and slash pay for some servers.

Big-name opponents of I-82 include José Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup (now José Andrés Group), Silver Diner, Great American Restaurants, Thompson Hospitality, Glory Days Grill, Chef Geoff’s, and Barcelona Wine Bar.

National nonprofit One Fair Wage advocated for the passage of I-82 and issued the following statement on Tuesday night:

“Everyone who works deserves to be paid a livable wage that allows them to feed their families and stay and work in D.C. It shows that Democrats across the country need to prioritize working people’s issues in order to win, especially now with inflation making it hard for people to survive.”

D.C. will join seven states that don’t have a tipped minimum wage either. But some D.C. restaurant owners and tipped workers have argued the measure would raise operating costs for small business, therefore raising dish and drink prices, reducing incentive for customers to tip and minimizing the earning potential of workers such as waiters and bartenders. Critics of tipping have argued that it reinforces misogyny, racism and classism.

Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, which is strongly against I-82, voiced its frustration about the vote on Tuesday night. “This measure will disrupt our city’s hundreds of small and independently owned restaurants and limit the earning potential of tipped employees, while also having regional repercussions,” per a statement on social media.

Ripple effects of I-82 could lead to spikes in rent, insurance, credit card fees, and sales and business taxes, notes Peter Bayne, the co-founder of Tin Shop (Franklin Hall, TallBoy, Lucy, Slice & Pie, and others).

“Unfortunately menu price increases do not directly correlate to higher wages, and that the price increases will not directly pass through to employees,” Bayne tells Eater.

Tin Shop’s tipped employees currently make anywhere from $25 to $75 per hour, he says.

“They deserve that as the service industry is a highly demanding job both mentally and physically. It can be very challenging to meet the demands of the modern customer, and I sincerely hope this initiative does not depress servers’ earnings,” he says.

The initiative doesn’t ban tipping, but many owners may now tack on a service charge to alleviate the impacts of I-82. Chef Geoff Tracy plans to gather feedback from his tipped employees in the coming weeks:

A similar D.C. ballot measure called Initiative 77 passed in 2018 with 55 percent of the vote, though the D.C. Council struck it down. The council’s newly reelected chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who led the block on I-77 four years ago, has indicted he doesn’t plan to repeal the same measure twice.