Laid-off DC restaurant worker renews effort to increase minimum wage for tipped employees

A waiter wears a mask and gloves as he takes customers’ orders at a restaurant in the Adams Morgan neighborhood in Washington, DC on May 29, 2020. Friday was the first day of the city’s “Phase One” re-opening following restrictive measures due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A D.C. restaurant worker who lost his job in the middle of the pandemic has launched an initiative to increase the city’s minimum wage for tipped employees.

Earlier this week, Ryan O’Leary, who has lived in D.C. for 10 years and worked in the restaurant industry as a server, filed the District of Columbia Full Minimum Wage for Tipped Workers Amendment Act of 2022. O’Leary told WTOP that the initiative includes many elements of previous efforts to increase the minimum wage for tipped workers.

Howard University senior Aniyah Vines will be chairwoman of the renewed effort.

On July 1, the minimum wage for all workers in D.C. will be $15.20. The base minimum wage for tipped employees will be $5.05, according to data from D.C.’s Department of Employment Services.

O’Leary is now a paid organizer for One Fair Wage, a national advocacy group that supports the two-wage system.

“I really wish more people knew what it’s like day to day being a server and what you have to put up with, only to receive no pay directly from your employer,” O’Leary said. “I’d like them to know that when they don’t leave a tip, you actually cost the waiter money.”

Under the filed proposal, tipped workers would receive a $1 pay increase in January 2023 and $2 annually until 2027, when the minimum wage for tipped employees would be at least $15.20.

The D.C. Board of Elections has to determine whether the initiative is proper subject matter, and if it advances, it will be approved for petition circulation. In order for the initiative to be on the June 2022 primary ballot, the campaign committee will have to collect 26,000 signatures by March 2022.

O’Leary said the initiative is essential to overcoming pay disparities.

“Just to leave someone’s entire wage and livelihood up to the whims and choices of the customer, study after study has shown that that means people of color and women make a whole lot less per year as tipped workers than their white male counterparts like myself,” O’Leary said.

When Mayor Muriel Bowser was asked by NBC4 Washington’s Mark Segraves about the ballot initiative at an event Wednesday, she said that before the pandemic, tipped workers made more than $15 an hour.

“I think restaurateurs and workers in a pandemic economy have experienced a different reality,” Bowser said. “I think that I need to know a little bit more about that reality. What I know is in a non-pandemic economy that restaurant workers in D.C. on average make much more than $15 an hour.”

O’Leary said the initiative is more about ensuring a livable wage is sustainable moving forward.

“Your wages [as a tipped employee] are higher than $15 an hour,” he said. “They will still be higher after you’re paid a minimum wage of $15 an hour. They’ll be higher than they were before. It will be a raise. You will start to see a paycheck with money in addition to your tips. But in order to get that money, you have to do the most demeaning things; sometimes you have to put up with harassment.”

The new effort resembles Initiative 77, which was introduced in 2018 and aimed to increase the minimum wage to the regular D.C. minimum wage by 2026. Voters approved the referendum by a margin of more than 8,000 votes, but the D.C. council voted to repeal it in an 8-5 vote.

At the time, critics on the council said the measure’s wording was misleading and suggested that those who voted for the measure likely didn’t realize they voted to cut the pay of many workers and prompt higher prices or layoffs to pay for what would become bigger payrolls.

But O’Leary remains optimistic, saying, “I think we do have a new council now, and it’ll be different.”

WTOP’s Megan Cloherty and Kristi King contributed to this report.

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Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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