Next week, D.C. residents will vote on whether tipped workers should make the minimum wage. The ballot measure, Initiative 77, would gradually raise the current base wage for tipped workers from $3.33 an hour, until it matches the city’s minimum wage in 2026. As far as local ballot initiatives go, this one has been contentious: the city is covered in signs, and our local press has been churning out hot takes for weeks. But people like me—people who have had to survive on tipped minimum wages—have mostly been shut out of the conversation, or too scared of their bosses to speak up.
I’ve worked in the service industry for 18 years, which means I’ve been a server in a restaurant for more of my life than I haven’t. There was the sports bar in Florida where we had to wear Catholic school girl uniforms, the barbecue joint in South Carolina next to the arena, the tiny Irish pub in South Charlotte, and the tiny English pub in South London. There was the café in pre-gentrified Brooklyn where the chef made the fluffiest scrambled eggs I’ve ever had, and the Mediterranean place in Helena, Montana with the teal ceiling and bright red chairs.
Clashing color scheme aside, that Mediterranean restaurant is one of the only places I’ve been able to feel at home. The other servers had worked there for years, and we actually made enough money to live on. I shared an apartment with my sister that overlooked Mount Helena, and we had enough left over after we paid our bills that I could make roast beef at Christmas and throw my sister a surprise party to make up for her third-grade birthday party when no one came.
Montana is one of the eight states that does not have a subminimum wage for tipped positions. In North Carolina, I only made $2.13 an hour, but in Montana I made the state’s minimum: $8.30 an hour, and tips were a bonus. For the first time in my life, I could save money. I could get a drink with friends after a good week, and still be confident I’d be able to pay my rent after a bad one.
I never even meant to live there. I went out to visit my sister after a car accident left me depressed, rattled, and unsure about my direction in life. I stayed because it gave me time to heal. By the time I left, nine months later, I was a first-time thousandaire. I had enough money in the bank to start over again in Philly, where I was back in restaurants that paid a subminimum wage. After a year of making $2.83 an hour, I drained my savings and had to sell my bed frame, bike, air conditioner, and beloved textbooks to pay my bills while I moved to D.C.
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Now that I’m here, D.C. residents actually have a choice to get rid of the tipped minimum wage. The debate has been one-sided: Besides the signs, restaurants have pushed their workers to vote against Initiative 77, or to keep their opinions to themselves if they’re voting for it. Meanwhile, my Facebook feed is filled with residents asking if anyone knows what tipped workers actually want, with most of us staying uncomfortably silent.
The truth is, I would not have been able to support myself as a waitress in North Carolina, Florida, or Pennsylvania had it not been for my family’s help. That support is a luxury. Most tipped workers are well into adulthood, past the age that they can expect family to support them. The other servers I know work second and third jobs just to buy the basics, and almost half of us still need to rely on government assistance. Even though federal law says that restaurants have to make up the difference if a worker doesn’t earn the state-wide minimum wage in tips, that math never worked for me. Employee wages are perpetually pilfered by restaurants that feel their base wages, low as they are, are somehow enough.
One well-known restaurateur I worked for, who owns one of the most prominent restaurants in D.C., has a habit of arriving at his boutique restaurants in a chauffeured car, occupying several tables, ordering more than $800 of food and wine, and then leaving without tipping his server. His reason for not tipping was that he paid our wages, which added up to about $8.50 after the three hours of service he demanded. To him, that was enough. For me, it never was.
That restaurant owner thrived by underpaying us. He would still be successful if he paid us a fair wage. And the data shows that’s true across the industry.
Initiative 77 could help us. I’ve seen it first-hand. So, me? I’m voting yes.