Restaurant workers picket at DC’s Capital Grille

Dozens of restaurant workers picketed in front of the Capital Grille in D.C. on Wednesday. (WTOP/Luke Lukert)

Dozens of restaurant workers demonstrated Wednesday outside the high-end Capital Grille, demanding wage reform as their industry and their livelihoods have been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Few industries have been hit harder: Recent headlines have recounted mass restaurant closures, and millions have lost their jobs because people aren’t dining out like they used to.

Servers and bartenders who are back on the job primarily count on tips for their livelihood, and fewer customers means fewer tips.

“People who are starting to be called back to work … they’re being paid a subminimum wage still of $5 an hour. They are trying to make up with tips when tips are down 75% because of the pandemic,” said Nikki Cole, an organizer with One Fare Wage, a group that has called for servers to receive a $15 minimum wage plus any tips they get during their shift.

They point out that the pandemic has also affected their job duties: Restaurant staff must now ensure that patrons are wearing masks and socially distancing, as well as performing increased cleaning and sanitizing.

In a statement, the group said they intentionally staged the rally outside the Capital Grille because it is “the flagship brand of Darden Restaurants, the nation’s largest restaurant operator managing 1,500 chain restaurants, including the Capital Grille and Olive Garden.”

“This restaurant company spent billions of dollars to lobby with the federal government and local government to make sure that the subminimum wage stays intact. We want essential workers to have a full $15 minimum wage plus their tips on top,” said Cole.

Darden Restaurants told WTOP that they have supported their staff through the pandemic, saying if anyone felt uncomfortable returning to work, they would be allowed leave.

The company also said that workers at Capital Grille locations have earned an average of around $41 an hour from tips throughout the pandemic. Across all their chains, including Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse, the average is around $20 an hour through tips.

The rally is also the first since D.C. lawmakers repealed Initiative 77, which aimed to raise the minimum pre-tip wage to match that of other workers in the city.

Many demonstrators called for the D.C. Council to look into the measure again during the pandemic.

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