Why Shouldn’t Bartenders Be Rich?

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This week, Washington, D.C.’s city council will vote on whether to repeal Initiative 77, which would phase out the sub-minimum wage for D.C.'s tipped workers over the next seven years. 

In defending the initiative, the pro-77 coalition has looked primarily to D.C.’s low-income tipped workers. They have stated (correctly) that one in seven D.C. tipped workers live in poverty; they have noted (smartly) that the typical D.C. tipped worker makes one-third what the typical non-tipped worker makes; and they have highlighted (importantly) the stories of non-restaurant tipped workers like my friend Dia King, who straddles the poverty line as a valet attendant.

And indeed, the needs of low-income tipped workers are the most compelling reason to end the tipped minimum wage. But Initiative 77 will improve the earnings of D.C.’s most successful restaurant workers as well, challenging the prevailing notion that service work is necessarily low-wage—and we should welcome that. We should want good bartenders to get rich.

Let’s say a highly successful D.C. bartender makes $500 per night. Assuming a full-time schedule and benefits, that works out to $130,000 per year. 

That’s a lot of money, but it’s important to remember that this represents the absolute top of the market. If such jobs exist at all, there are almost certainly just a relative few of them in the entire D.C. area, and any bartender holding such a position has likely put in more than 15 years to get there. Furthermore, to put $130,000 in perspective, it is about three-quarters the salary of a first-year associate at a top-tier law firm, and about 25 percent of the median D.C. home price. 

It’s also important to remember that, while high-paying white-collar jobs come with stability and the promise of even better pay down the line, restaurant industry studies suggest that older workers make up a disproportionately small share of restaurant workers, and face substantial discrimination in the industry. So while this lucky bartender might peak at an impressive annual figure, he or she will likely find those earnings difficult to maintain in the long run. 

Even D.C.’s most successful bartenders, then, make less than many of their early-career patrons, are still unable to comfortably purchase a home in the city they serve, and will face declining security (instead of higher earnings) as they accrue experience. 

The highly qualified, highly sought restaurant workers who are bumping their heads on that ceiling should be wondering what they can do to raise it. In Oakland, where I am currently bartending, many of my coworkers and industry friends have negotiated their hourly wage up from the mandated minimum of $13.23. If D.C.’s elite restaurant workers are happy with their tips, they will be even happier with tips plus $20 per hour.

And if you think this sounds like too much money for a bartender to make, then I have two arguments for you.

The first is that good restaurant workers are worth it. Elite bartenders and servers have wine knowledge equivalent to a mid-level sommelier, understand the brewing process, and have detailed knowledge about hundreds of individual spirits, not to mention an extensive knowledge of food. They hold and impart this knowledge while performing intensive physical labor, often without breaks, for hours on end, and they have an uncanny ability to enhance the dining experience through sheer force of personality.

I have worked with several such bartenders, and I can say that none were paid what they are worth. Skilled workers in other industries earn substantial base pay in addition to commission; they earn equity, and they receive bonuses. Why should the restaurant industry be any different? Tipped workers at all income levels should demand a larger share of the businesses they help to succeed. 

By refusing to allow bargaining for base wages, we perpetuate a system in which restaurant jobs are short-term because loyalty goes unrewarded, and in which restaurant professions are therefore temporary, due to the limited potential for increased earnings. Many servers and bartenders will become managers or even owners, but getting out shouldn’t be the only way of going up.  

My second argument is this: It doesn’t matter what we think a bartender should be paid; bartenders should be paid whatever the market will bear, and currently those waters are largely untested. Initiative 77 represents an opportunity for industry workers to open up this discussion, but instead of advocating for themselves, a vocal portion of D.C.’s restaurant workers have sided against 77 out of fear of losing tips or bringing harm to the businesses they work for. The system, however, only works when both sides push for more.

Moreover, any D.C. bartender making good money at a reputable restaurant can rest assured their bosses are, too. And it’s fine to prefer that tips remain the primary component of overall compensation, but if the long-term goal is to make more money, hourly wages must be at least part of the conversation.

The widespread fear that worker earnings would decline due to restaurants instating a service charge and abolishing tipping is unfounded—this scenario has yet to materialize in Oakland or in other fair-wage cities, where my colleagues and I make about 20 percent more than our counterparts in cities like D.C. Even if some restaurants in D.C. did convert to that system, workers would use their considerable leverage to demand hourly rates approximating or exceeding their current earnings—anywhere from $30 to $50 per hour and up. Anything less and staff would walk, which is precisely what happened when several high-profile restaurants in New York and Seattle attempted these changes. 

In other words, bartenders don't make good money because of the specific design of the system; they make good money because they are good at their jobs. And there is power that inherently accompanies such skill. Initiative 77 will help create an industry more befitting the skill and experience of the industry’s valuable workers. 

I think D.C.’s best bartenders and servers should consider what they stand to gain from the one fair wage system, rather than focusing so much on what they could lose in an unrealistic worst-case scenario. I am not saying the sky is the limit—businesses have a bottom line they need to protect—but it’s certainly a lot higher than $3.89.

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