The Case for Eliminating the Tipped Minimum Wage in Washington, D.C.

by Restaurant Opportunities Center United
by National Employment Law Project

Executive Summary

As the Fight for $15 builds momentum from coast to coast, Washington D.C. residents are calling for the District of Columbia to join New York and California, and close to a dozen other cities, that have already raised their minimum wage to $15 per hour.1 In response, Mayor Muriel Bowser and members of the Council of the District of Columbia have proposed legislation to raise D.C.’s wage floor to $15 and increase the subminimum tipped wage to 50 percent of the full minimum wage.2

While an improvement compared to current law, the Mayor’s proposal would nonetheless leave behind a significant number of low-wage workers—namely, the nearly 29,000 workers in D.C. that work in predominantly tipped occupations. Restaurant workers account for the overwhelming majority of workers in this group and they include, for example, servers, bartenders, and food delivery workers.3 Other workers in primarily tipped occupations in D.C. include, among others, hairdressers, nail salon workers, massage therapists, and baggage porters.4 Under the current law, employers can pay these workers just $2.77 per hour, as long as tips cover the difference between the regular minimum wage and the subminimum tipped wage (the “tipped minimum wage”).5

This report analyzes the impact of maintaining a lower minimum wage for tipped workers and draws from the experience of other cities that have abolished the tipped minimum wage. It finds that:

  • The outmoded tipped minimum wage promotes poverty wages and unstable incomes for a tipped workforce that is majority-female across the country and disproportionately non-white in D.C.6 Contrary to industry claims that most tipped servers earn high incomes, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median wage for tipped restaurant servers in Washington D.C. (classified as “Waiters and Waitresses” by the BLS), was just $9.58 per hour, including tips, between 2012 and 2015.7 This median wage was just a little higher than D.C.’s minimum wage during that period—the minimum wage increased from $8.25 to $9.50 between 2012 and 2015.8 It is also almost one dollar less than D.C.’s current minimum wage of $10.50 per hour.9
  • While a small number of tipped workers are employed at high-end restaurants where they earn significant amounts in tips resulting in higher incomes, high-earning servers are a small minority and not representative of tipped workers in D.C.10
  • D.C.’s tipped workers experience poverty at nearly twice the rate of all D.C. workers.11 And like tipped workers across the country, they must work for widely fluctuating incomes12 under the tipped minimum wage system, which leaves them and their families economically vulnerable.
  • Tipped workers are disproportionately people of color in D.C.,13 and women feel the impact of the tipped minimum wage most acutely— female tipped workers are twice as likely to live in poverty as male tipped workers in D.C.14
  • With a base wage of $2.77 per hour, tipped workers in practice depend entirely on tips for their income. This forces servers to tolerate inappropriate behavior from customers in order to make a living and also forces them to subject themselves to objectification that makes them vulnerable to co-worker and management harassment. Workers in states with a tipped minimum wage, such as D.C., are twice as likely to experience sexual harassment as workers in states that do not have a lower tipped minimum wage.15 Over ninety percent of restaurant workers in D.C. report sexually harassing behavior in their workplace.16
  • The nation’s top wage enforcement experts at the U.S. Department of Labor report that the complex tipped wage system—whereby employers are required to monitor employee wages and tips so that they can make up the difference between an employee’s earnings and the full minimum wage if tips fall short—is so complicated that it is difficult to enforce and results in high rates of noncompliance by employers. 17
  • Recognition of the harms and pitfalls resulting from a tipped minimum wage has led to a growing movement to abolish it. Two federal bills to raise the minimum wage would also eliminate the tipped minimum wage.18 Leaders who support eliminating the tipped minimum wage include President Barack Obama,19 Secretary Hillary Clinton,20 Senator Bernie Sanders,21 and over two hundred members of Congress, including D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton.22
  • The restaurant industry is strong in the seven states with no tipped minimum wage, demonstrating that it is economically feasible to phase out the tipped minimum wage without harming restaurant jobs or sales.23 The National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) own data show relatively high rates of restaurant industry employment and sales growth in states that do not permit a lower tipped minimum wage compared with states that permit it.24
  • Cities like San Francisco and Seattle, which are both raising their minimum wage to $15.00 and do not allow a tipped minimum wage, have strong restaurant industries with growing employment.25 This robust growth has occurred without a tip credit and while raising wages by 30 percent in San Francisco and by over 53 percent in Seattle since 2004.26
  • Contrary to opponents’ predictions, raising the minimum wage to $15.00 and prohibiting a lower tipped minimum wage has not led restaurants to abolish tipping and has not led diners to reduce tipping levels. A small number of high-end restaurants are experimenting with getting rid of tipping, but these experiments are in their infancy, and overall tipping rates are the same, if not higher, in the seven states with no tipped minimum wage. Tipping rates in San Francisco27 and Alaska are among the highest in the country, despite the fact that these jurisdictions have no tipped minimum wage.28
  • Waiters and bartenders earn about 20 percent more in wages in states where tipped workers must be paid the full minimum wage before tips than in states that allow employers to pay only the federal $2.13 tipped minimum wage.29 In Seattle, bartenders at the ninetieth percentile of earnings earn 29 percent more than the same bartenders in D.C., while in San Francisco, top-earning bartenders take home 43 percent more in earnings than top-earning bartenders in D.C.30

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