Advocates for steep minimum wage hikes in Washington, D.C., suffered a defeat last Tuesday when City Council announced a bill to repeal initiative 77. The original ballot measure, voted on during the District’s primaries in June, would have eliminated tips as credible income for restaurant workers, and eventually enforced a minimum $15 hourly pay rate for all employees.
The measure passed with 56 percent of the vote, but was heavily opposed by restaurant employees, regardless of their political affiliations. Seven of the thirteen council members, all Democrats, have put forth a bill to repeal, with Council Chairman Phil Mendelson citing that the wording on the ballot did not properly inform voters that restaurant employees are already guaranteed to make minimum wage. Mendelson also said, “For a measure that is advertised as helping workers, to have so many workers opposed is striking.” City Council is currently on summer recess, but will vote on the repeal when they return in the fall.
Restaurant Opportunity Centers United, a “One Fair Wage” advocacy group that pushed to get 77 on the ballot, has some pretty high profile allies, including Hollywood elites Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. Following the council’s announcement of their majority interest in repealing 77, Fonda arrived in D.C. to publicly declare her outrage. Although the actress has never worked in a restaurant or fought for a living wage as a tipped employee, she believes strongly in the cause, and condemned the council and vocal 77 opposer, The National Restaurant Association.
Fonda said, “The National Restaurant Association — the other NRA — is trying to persuade the city council to not support the voice of the people in D.C. by claiming tips and restaurants will disappear. It’s not true.”
In fact, it is true. Iconic restaurants in New York, Seattle, and many other cities dealing with harmful minimum wage requirements have been closing at a staggering rate. She also feels that tipping culture promotes an environment of sexual abuse, going so far as to claim, “Initiative 77 cuts sexual abuse in half and allows women and other restaurant workers to be less vulnerable.”
I am not sure of the source for Fonda’s statistics, but as a person who has made most of my life’s income from tips, I can confidently say she has been woefully misinformed.
The New York Times ran an article in March that highlighted several people’s experience working as tipped employees. The stories were mostly from women, and covered their experiences of being sexually harassed by customers. The article framed a world in which people would receive maximum tips by allowing customers to verbally and physically accost them, and if they stuck up for themselves, they wouldn’t make enough money to pay their bills.
While there are certainly bad people that come into restaurants and bars, they should be dealt with the same way any predator is, and in my experience that is the case. The suggestion that working for tips automatically makes you a victim of an abusive culture is totally false, and frankly, offensive. In 2018, if a person finds themselves working at a bar or restaurant where they feel their income is threatened by their refusal to be harassed, they should contact the police, or at the very least, find a new job.
Jane Fonda feels that workers should not expect a decrease in earned tips because of an increase in their hourly pay rate. This is also patently false. Many restaurants across America that have taken on a $15 per hour pay rate for service staff have actually opted to institute a “no tipping” policy, in order to alleviate the sticker shock that the increased menu pricing causes. To suggest that restaurants should raise their prices to accommodate the increased payroll, while expecting their customers not to flinch is laughably stupid. To further assume that people would continue to tip on habit, knowing their server is making $15 an hour is also deeply misguided.
Furthermore, if every restaurant pays their employee the same hourly rate, and the tips dissipate as the checks get higher, eventually there will be no incentive for someone to seek employment at a more challenging, high quality restaurant. If you could make the same amount of money selling ice cream as you could waiting tables at an accoladed, but demanding restaurant, why put yourself through the stress and education of rising to the higher level? A server who rings up an average check of $70 shouldn’t make the same amount as a server who rings an average $1,000 check, and the quality of service for each should match the price.
In a representative democracy, it is impractical and dangerous to enact legislation of this magnitude through direct vote. While Ms. Fonda may think the Council’s decision is an affront to democracy, our government was, in fact, designed to protect us from legislation stemming from trendy, uneducated, social causes. In fact, only about 10 percent of registered DC voters picked “yes” for Initiative 77. City Council’s decision to repeal this terribly flawed legislation is an enormous win for DC restaurants and their employees, no matter what Jane Fonda thinks.