Unions, activists push to up D.C.’s recently raised minimum wage, include tipped workers

Months after lawmakers acted to give the District one of the nation’s highest minimum wages, a coalition of unions and activist groups says it will push forward with a bid to raise the minimum even higher — to $12.50 an hour by 2017.

The campaign could especially benefit one group of workers: restaurant servers and employees who earn much of their pay through tips. They are entitled to just a portion of the minimum hourly wage under current District and federal law.

Two potential ballot initiatives have been submitted for the approval of D.C. elections officials. One, developed by D.C. Working Families, already has gotten initial approval from the D.C. Board of Elections. The other — a more aggressive proposal from the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, an advocacy group for waiters also known as ROC United — is set to go before the board early next month.

The D.C. Council voted in December to phase in a minimum-wage increase, taking it from the current $8.25 to $11.50 by July 2016. Council members congratulated themselves for passing one of the nation’s most aggressive wage hikes. But the $11.50 rate — part of a regional compromise with leaders in two Maryland counties — fell at least a dollar short of what some worker advocates had sought, and it did not affect the $2.77 hourly wage for tipped workers.

Under the language proposed by D.C. Working Families, the “tipped wage” would increase gradually, from the current $2.77 to a fixed 70 percent of the general rate by 2021. The ROC United proposal would push the tipped wage to fully match the general minimum wage, also by 2021.

Under federal and District law, employers must make their tipped workers whole if their earnings after tips fall short of the full minimum wage. National and local lobby groups for the restaurant industry say most tipped workers earn well above the minimum wage and that the added costs of an hourly base wage would drive up prices and cut into already thin profit margins.

Kathy Hollinger, president of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, said that raising the base wage would mean fewer overall jobs and erode a system that rewards “initiative and hustle” as well as quality service. “Service in restaurants will suffer if the tip system is undermined and ultimately eliminated,” she said.

But Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of ROC United, said not all tipped workers are well-compensated waiters at upscale restaurants. Income from tips can fluctuate wildly while expenses remain static, she said, and a reliance on pleasing customers can put female workers, in particular, in vulnerable positions.

“There is no other industry where we let employers allow other people to pay their workers,” Jayaraman said.

Both groups say they hope to start circulating petitions next month to allow a minimum-wage question to get on November’s general-election ballot. They will have to collect tens of thousands of voter signatures in just weeks to meet a July 7 deadline.

“It’s going to be kind of tight,” said Delvone Michael, executive director of D.C. Working Families.

D.C. Working Families launched its wage push in November, ahead of the council vote, in what many say was a bid to influence the council debate. Few thought the upstart group — backed by unions representing laborers, service workers and hotel workers, among others — would go to the expense and effort of putting a $12.50 wage on the ballot.

Michael said the group is committed to the effort; the only question is whether enough verified signatures of registered voters — more than 22,000, evenly distributed across the city’s eight council wards — can be collected in time. If not, he said, the group will continue collecting signatures and submit them to be placed on the next citywide ballot — in 2016 or before, if a special election is scheduled.

“If we make it, great,” Michael said. “If we don’t, we will absolutely keep pushing forward.”

Leaders of D.C. Working Families and ROC United said this week that they are in talks about uniting their efforts behind one joint initiative. While the groups generally agree that the more aggressive proposal is preferable, the less aggressive plan is further along in the approval process and thus gives supporters more time before the July deadline to gather signatures.

According to the Labor Department, seven states, including California and Nevada, require employers to pay the full minimum wage to tipped workers.

The minimum-wage measures aren’t the only pieces of liberal lawmaking vying for the November ballot. A grass-roots advocacy group is collecting signatures in a bid to legalize marijuana in the District.

Adam Eidinger, one of the group’s leaders, said nearly 20,000 signatures have been collected so far toward the requirement of 22,373; that is, 5 percent of registered city voters.

But a conservative review of the signatures collected showed only about a third of them came from bona fide registered voters, Eidinger said, meaning much more work is left to do. “We’re on pace,” he said. “If you look at the numbers and how much time we have left, we’ll get it. But we have to keep on pace.”

Eidinger said he supports the minimum-wage push and thinks the marijuana efforts can only help. “They can take the energy we’ve built and get it off the ground.”

mike.debonis@washpost.com

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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