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D.C.’s Best Bartender: Vote No on Wage Hike

Worker says $15 wage will hurt dive employees rather than 5-star folks

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• June 19, 2018 5:00 am

Washington, D.C., waiters are not prepared to take a pay-cut to listen to the bellyaching of political professionals.

On Tuesday residents of the capital will vote on Proposition 77, which would eliminate the tipped wage and instead pay wait staff $15 an hour by 2020. The union-backed proposal has won plaudits from Big Labor allies and academics, but restaurant workers are campaigning to defeat it. Every light pole around 18th and K Streets Northwest features a "Vote No" sign.

A block down sits Bottom Line, "a staple in D.C. for 40 years," according to an unsourced blurb on its menu. Ownership has changed in recent years, the staff's black polos exchanged for white button downs and black ties, but the clientele has not: underpaid online reporters, interns, and lunch drunks—the type of people not known for being good tippers.

The Washington Free Beacon has encountered numerous "No on 77" waiters and bartenders since the ballot initiative was introduced. The wait staff at the cigar bars and pricey lounges it has visited sported "No on 77" pins. Of course, high-end waiters with $6 beers and $70 entrees like tipping, but they are the exception, according to labor advocates. Big Al, Bottom Line's best waiter, says this is not the case.

"The people who have never worked in a restaurant, those are the people who will vote for [the hike]," Big Al says. "People who work in restaurants, they know."

Bottom Line is the the only affordable bar within the White House radius, a place that features beers priced below $5 outside of Happy Hour. Big Al said he hopes the $15 minimum "won't go through." At his and other servers' urging, Bottom Line began including a green pamphlet in every check telling patrons to "Save Our Tips." The pamphlet says restaurants and bars will be forced to reduce staff and shifts, eliminate overtime, and close restaurants if Initiative 77 passes.

Washington, D.C., is the second stingiest place in America for tips. A 2017 study from the payment app Square found that residents of the nation's capital tipped below 15 percent on their checks, while their neighbors in Maryland and Virginia tipped 15.9 percent and 16 percent, respectively. All three were among the 15 cheapest states in the country, despite the fact that 5 of the 10 wealthiest counties in America were located in the D.C. suburbs.

The ballot initiative would raise the minimum wage to more than than twice the $7.25 federal minimum. Big Al said he expects to take a pay-cut if this is to happen. His customers' tips vault him and his coworkers well above the $15 hourly rate, but he sees their pay dropping if restaurant worker compensation is treated the same way as that of fast-food employees. He expects workers at cheaper bars to bear the brunt of the policy rather than those at high-end establishments.

"The high-class restaurants, they'll be alright. The cheaper restaurants, you're not going to get the money coming in," he said. "We always got people that tip good, but if the prices go up, they'll not tip as well."

D.C. will vote on the minimum wage on Tuesday.