Here’s what Initiative 82 could mean for tipping in DC

Illustration of a briefcase made out of a restaurant check holder.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

For the second time in roughly four years, DC voters will determine how tipped workers get paid, this time through the Initiative 82 ballot measure.

What’s happening: The initiative would require employers to pay DC’s $16.10 minimum wage to tipped employees such as restaurant servers, nail salon workers, and valets regardless of how much they earn in tips.

  • The increase would be gradual, with full implementation by 2027.

Currently, employers can pay less than minimum wage as long as each employee makes enough in tips to meet or exceed $16.10 an hour.

  • For example, Waiter A makes $5.35/hour from their employer and earns $7 in tips over the course of an hour, so their employer has to pay an additional $3.75 to ensure they meet the $16.10 minimum wage.
  • Waiter B makes $5.35/hour from their employer and $20 in tips in one hour, so they’d exceed the minimum wage and their employer doesn’t have to pay them any extra.
  • Initiative 82 would require employers to pay both Waiters A and B the same base pay of $16.10 an hour.

OK, so are tips eliminated if I-82 passes? No. Tipping would still be your choice.

  • Some servers want the status quo because they make well beyond $16.10 an hour and worry that diners will stop tipping if things change.
  • There are also concerns that small, independent restaurants would have to close due to the added costs, and that business owners might cut back on staff.

So who might benefit if I-82 passes? Those in favor of the initiative argue it would help to erase disparities faced by often marginalized back-of-house restaurant staff who usually make much less than their front-of-house peers. In a Washington Post op-ed, one I-82 proponent argues that young line cooks and other highly skilled staff often give up on the industry due to low pay.

There’s also an argument that employers don’t always follow the rules and make up for gaps between minimum wage and hourly tips. Passing the ballot measure would keep this from being an issue.

Additionally, if I-82 passes and customers continue to tip the same amount, tipped workers would earn more.

One wrinkle that’s causing (more) confusion: Diners are already unsure of how much to tip amid the surge of service charges and fees that arose during the pandemic.

  • Sometimes service fees are split between staff or used for health benefits. And there’s no right answer when deciding whether or not to add an additional tip on top of these fees.
  • Some worry that service fees will only become steeper and more common if I-82 passes, further discouraging customers from tipping.

Note: Since the last time Washingtonians voted on a tip-related ballot measure, some restaurants, including 2Amys, have ditched the old system and begun paying their servers minimum wage or more. The Cathedral Heights pizzeria didn’t add a service charge but instead raised prices and cut its profits, while employees get paid time off and health benefits.

Zoom out: Other states including California and Alaska have I-82-esque laws requiring tipped workers to be paid the standard minimum wage, but most states around the country still rely on the old-fashioned tipping system.

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