I’ve been a bartender for over 20 years. Over that time, the restaurant industry has provided me the income and flexibility to raise my daughter as a single mom on the east coast. Recently, some well-meaning labor advocates have given me a new label: victim. A recent op-ed in these pages called my industry exploitative, and even suggested that my primary source of income — customer tips — is a legacy of post-Civil War worker exploitation.
These claims are not just offensive, they’re outright wrong. It’s important to correct them lest members of Congress make drastic policy changes based on a misunderstanding of where I work.
Let’s start with a primer on restaurant pay. In most states and DC, tipped workers earn the minimum wage through a combination of a base rate and tip income. If for some reason we don’t earn at least the required minimum, the restaurant is legally required to make up the gap.
Speaking for myself and everyone I’ve worked with in the restaurant industry, this isn’t a problem; I average $30 an hour between my base rate and tips, a figure similar to what my colleagues earn.
There’s an added benefit to the current system, beyond the above-minimum wage pay. The lower base wage lets restaurants provide entry-level employment opportunities to inexperienced workers at a lower risk, which in turn makes it possible for the hospitality field to be the industry of second chances.
Last year, a well-funded labor group called the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) parachuted into DC from New York to try and change this system. ROC’s organizers spread the false claim that tipped workers earn a “sub-minimum wage,” and proposed quadrupling the base wage we’re paid.
Recently, the House of Representatives voted in favor of the “Raise the Wage Act” which would similarly alter the way tipped employees are paid.
ROC’s arguments aren’t based on economics, but rather deeply offensive political rhetoric. The group has repeatedly compared our employment to the horrors of slavery; one of ROC’s board members even suggested my bartender colleague — a black man — was similar to an “Uncle Tom” for supporting the current system.
As a woman of color, I take umbrage at ROC’s rhetoric, particularly given that it’s not grounded in historical fact.
In DC, tipped workers successfully raised their voices in opposition to ROC’s preferred policy, following a similar outpouring of grassroots support in New York. Worker-led groups including the local Bar and Restaurant Workers Alliance, Restaurant Workers of America and the Full Service Workers Alliance have emerged as authentic voices in discussions about legislation that will affect our livelihoods.
It is true that there are individuals in our industry who are struggling to survive and that reality deserves to be addressed in a thoughtful way. But the interests of the most vulnerable in our community will not be well-served by the reckless disruption of our industry that could force many to reduce staff or close their doors altogether.
Tipped workers are not voiceless victims. We choose this industry, with full knowledge of the pay structure, because it works for us. We choose these jobs because the majority of us make far more than the standard minimum wage. We would like to have a seat at the table in policy discussions that affect our livelihoods. We know our jobs, our communities, and our industry. We know what is best for us, and it’s time for Congress to listen.
Graham is a bartender at CopyCat in Washington, DC