D.C. tipped workers, allies battle pending potential wage hike repeal
Signs carried by tipped workers at a demonstration. Restaurant workers all over the country, these in New York, have demonstrated for fair wages. | onebillionrising.org

WASHINGTON—“I love my job and my customers,” says Gillian Michalowski, a bartender in D.C. for the past seven years. Her pay is another matter.

That’s because, twice in that time,  D.C. voters approved referendums raising the minimum wage for workers who survive on tips, such as Michalowski. The goal: To have D.C.’s tipped minimum, as it’s called, equal its regular minimum wage, now $17 hourly, by 2027.

Now that goal is in danger.

The supposedly progressive D.C. Council overturned the first vote—at the behest of the restaurant and bar lobby—and may be on the verge of doing so again.

Which led Michalowski and about 50 other people, organized by Jobs With Justice and the Restaurant Opportunities Center, to demonstrate on March 4 in front of the John A. Wilson Building, D.C.’s city hall, for retaining the increase voters approved in D.C.’s tipped minimum wage via Initiative 82. The council scheduled a March 5 hearing on repeal.

Union members from the JWJ, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, the Communications Workers and National Nurses United joined them.

The tipped minimum wage is what restaurant servers, bartenders, greeters, bellhops, taxi drivers and other tipped workers are guaranteed. It varies by state. Tips top the wage. Initiative 82, passed two years ago, raised D.C.’s tipped minimum by two dollars an hour every year, to $8 an hour starting last July 1. A hike to $10 is scheduled for July 1. The federal tipped minimum last rose in 1992. It’s $2.13 hourly.

Eight dollars an hour is not enough to live on, especially in high-cost high-income cities such as D.C.

“I’ve never known real financial stability,” Michalowski told People’s World. “Sometimes, I’ve had the rug pulled out from under my feet.

“I’ve certainly had to skip meals. I’ve been late on rent payments. I had no health care coverage” in the bartending job she held before her current post. “And no workers comp” if she got hurt on the job.

And even when bosses make up the difference between tips and the minimum, it’s not enough to provide a steady income, Michalowski said. That’s because her combined paycheck fluctuates wildly from week to week.

Britt Lucas, one of three speakers at the rally, also a bartender for seven years and a service industries worker for 15, told the group the same story. She too “loves my interaction with my customers.”

In her prior bartending job, Lucas couldn’t afford health insurance, though the bar owner offered it—at $500 per month. In a follow-up interview, Lucas said her current bar job has affordable health care, because the bar picks up half of the premium.

Under tipped minimum wage laws, city, state and federal, if the “tipped minimum” worker doesn’t make her jurisdiction’s tipped minimum, the boss is supposed to make up the difference. But many bosses don’t. It’s a form of wage theft.

Reacting to I-82 and its mandated higher tipped minimums, many D.C. restaurants have cut workers, hours, or both—by switching customer ordering to QR codes. Airport restaurants, which also pay their food service workers low wages, are making that switch, too.

Such patterns mean the nation’s 12.6 million restaurant and bar workers are the lowest-paid workers, earning $21.69 hourly, among major employee groups. They also work the fewest weekly hours, 27.

Together, the numbers put Michalowski, Lucas and their colleagues in the nation’s army of low-wage exploited workers, along with hotel workers, adjunct professors and port rail workers, among others. Those workers are turning to unions, strikes and taking a hike for higher-paid posts, all to combat the greed of the corporate class.

The D.C. branch of the National Restaurant Association demands the council repeal Initiative 82. Meanwhile, many of their member restaurants tack a “service charge” onto patrons’ bills. Some even call it an “I-82 fee.” Owners collect the added money but often pass little if any of it on to the workers.

While the supposedly progressive D.C. Council considers overriding the voter-approved raise in the tipped minimum wage, the deep-blue Illinois legislature may move in the other direction, towards a statewide increase to match Chicago’s. NBC-TV reported the week before on that proposed hike.

The Illinois minimum wage is $14/hour, and its tipped minimum is $8.40. Chicago’s tipped minimum is $9 but the City Council just passed an ordinance raising it to $15.80 over several years. And the workers could still earn tips on top of the minimum, just as in D.C.

“These workers need to be paid a full living wage that starts with guaranteeing minimum wage with tips on top,” State Rep. Kevin Olickal, D-Skokie, told the station.

“We have tracked 6,000 restaurants across the country, including several hundred here in Illinois that have voluntarily moved from paying a subminimum to paying a full, livable wage with tips on top because that is the only way to recruit staff in the worst staffing crisis in Illinois and national restaurant industry history,” One Fair Wage, which backs both the D.C. campaign and the Illinois effort, said in a statement.

Like its D.C. counterpart, the Illinois Restaurant Association said it “wholeheartedly” disagrees with raising the tipped wage there.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.