Updated 5:40 p.m.
Tuesday was the first day for the District’s new minimum wage of $9.50 an hour — a jump from $8.25 and a first step in a phased increase that will put the rate at $11.50 by July 2016, with yearly cost-of-living adjustments thereafter.
But for many of the unions and activist groups that pushed for the increase, their work is not done. They taken steps to put ballot initiatives before voters that would push the wage to $12.50 in 2017 and given tipped workers, like restaurant servers, a higher base wage.
A month ago, those groups expressed optimism that they would be able to get the initiative on the ballot this November. Those hopes now appear to have faded, but the two groups seeking to put further wage increases to voters are now looking beyond 2014 and toward an even more considerable hike — as much as $15 an hour.
Such a measure could make it on the ballot of the next citywide election after the Nov. 4 general election — in 2016 or before, if a citywide special election is scheduled.
A $12.50 proposal known as the “Fair Minimum Wage Act,” put forth by the D.C. Working Families coalition, is slightly further along. Its petition forms were approved for circulation last week, but with only two weeks before the July 7 deadline for November ballot access, gathering the necessary 22,608 valid voter signatures would be extremely difficult, said D.C. Working Families Executive Director Delvone Michael.
The other proposal, known as the “No Worker Shall Make Less Than the Minimum Wage Act,” is slightly less advanced in the process. It has the backing of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a national organizing group for tipped workers, and would not only put the overall minimum wage at $12.50 but raise the base minimum wage for those workers from $2.77 to the overall rate by 2021.
Talks are underway between the two groups about joining their efforts. “That’s still the ongoing discussion, to try to have one initiative on the ballot,” said Stephanie Roth, ROC United’s lead D.C. coordinator, who acknowledged that it would be “impossible” to collect the necessary signatures for either initiative by July 7.
Michael said the debate is not necessarily about to what extent tipped workers should be entitled to a higher base wage, but rather whether the goal of a $12.50 overall wage is “ambitious enough.”
Adjusting the wage rate set by the initiative would mean starting the approval process from scratch. Once blessed by the D.C. Board of Elections, circulators have 180 days to collect the necessary signatures.
“It could potentially be an entirely different proposal,” Michael said, noting recent developments in Seattle — where lawmakers last month passed a $15 minimum wage, effective as soon as Jan. 1, 2017, for that city’s largest employers.
Should the groups come together on a compromise proposal, there is a ready activist infrastructure to support it. Representatives from the D.C. Employment Justice Center, Jews United for Justice, the United Food and Commercial Workers, as well as three at-large D.C. Council candidates (independents Graylan S. Hagler and Elissa Silverman and Statehood Green nominee Eugene Puryear) joined a celebratory rally Tuesday morning in front of a Shaw restaurant.
Activists fanned out into the neighborhood with cards notifying residents of the new minimum wage rate and new requirements for paid sick days.
Also at Tuesday’s rally was Joslyn Williams, president of the Metro Washington Labor Council AFL-CIO. The regional labor leader said that while a wage initiative won’t be on the November ballot, he has taken a role in trying to get D.C. Working Families and ROC United on common ground supporting a single initiative for the next citywide election.
“We’re trying to bring both sides together,” he said, pointing out that in any case, the higher increment in the overall minimum wage wouldn’t take effect for three years: “Whatever takes place won’t take place for a while.”
Michael played down any inter-coalition rivalries: “We’re willing to work with anyone who wants to take up the cause of working families in D.C. … We’re a long way down the line in getting it resolved.”