D.C. Is Raising Restaurant Pay. What Does That Mean for the Rest of Us?

The last few years have fundamentally changed Americans’ relationship with restaurants. As the pandemic made diners more aware of the long hours and low pay built into the business, many began tipping more, donating to employee funds and lobbying elected officials for worker protections.

Now that awareness has translated into legislation that could reshape restaurants as we know them. Voters and lawmakers in 10 states, including New York, will decide this year whether to end the tipped minimum wage — a longstanding loophole that allows restaurant owners to pay their tipped workers a wage much lower than the minimum for other employees, on the understanding that tips will make up the difference.

For years, labor groups like One Fair Wage have contended that the practice denies many employees a living wage and leaves them reliant on customers’ willingness to tip. Supporters of the tipped minimum wage say it eases owners’ bottom line in a business that already runs on thin margins. Many have predicted that its abolition will drive up customer checks, sour them on eating out and force many places to close.

How valid are those worries? And will workers actually benefit from the change?

A useful place to look for answers is Washington, D.C., one of the first U.S. cities in decades to begin phasing out the tipped wage — a move so contentious that it took two elections to make it happen. (The measure passed in 2018 with 56 percent of the vote, but was repealed by the District of Columbia Council, only to pass again with nearly 75 percent support in 2022.)

Brett Herrick serving guests at Elle, which has expended its hours and pared back prices as dinner traffic has fallen off. Credit…Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

More than a year into its experiment, the city — where food service, including a diverse collection of independent restaurants, is the third-largest sector of the local economy — is still torn. Trupti Patel, a server, said she received death threats for vocally supporting the end of the tipped minimum wage, and is still harassed. Another server who voted for the change, Britt Lucas, said that even today, she’s not speaking to some people because they disagree on the issue.

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