D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and a majority of the D.C. Council are opposing a June ballot measure that would shake up the way diners and drinkers tip restaurant servers, bartenders and others who earn gratuities in the city’s burgeoning entertainment scene.
Initiative 77, the measure on the June 19 ballot, would eliminate the “tipped wage” and require all workers be paid the standard minimum wage.
Restaurant Opportunities Center, the New York-based group behind Initiative 77, says ending the tipped wage would provide servers with a more predictable source of income and would help shield female workers from sexual harassment from customers, upon whom they depend for tips.
But scores of local restaurants and their staffers say the measure will increase labor costs and force employers to cut hours and staff, while customers leave smaller tips, if any.
Some say they now earn far more than $12.50 an hour with tips as the population and restaurant industry in the District have boomed in recent years.
Hundreds of workers on Wednesday packed Franklin Hall, a beer hall near the bustling U Street Corridor, to discuss the measure. Six lawmakers showed up.
“I’m angry about this initiative because not only was it imported from out of state, but the proponents behind it are being dishonest,” D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) told attendees. “It’s being spun as in your best interest when we know its exactly the opposite.”
He was joined by council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4), Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), David Grosso (I-At Large) and Anita Bonds (D-At Large). Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) is also against the ballot measure, making the majority of the 13-member body in opposition.
Two years ago, the council and mayor approved raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020 and tying future increases to inflation. As part of that debate, officials rejected calls to end the tipped wage and instead agreed to gradually increase it to $5 an hour.
At Wednesday’s gathering, lawmakers urged restaurant workers to explain their position to their customers, noting that in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, people tend to support the idea of raising wages.
“People like to vote for referendums, but they seldom know the impact that a referendum result will have on their lives. . . . People don’t know what this really means,” Bonds said.
Even if the ballot measure passes, the council could overturn the result. Mendelson has declined to say if he would take such a step, but Grosso suggested it as an option.
Several of the lawmakers opposed to Initiative 77 are facing challengers in June who support the ballot measure, including Mendelson’s opponent, Ed Lazere, and Bonds’s challenger, Jeremiah Lowery.
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) is the only lawmaker who publicly backs Initiative 77. The rest — Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) and Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) — are undecided or haven’t taken a stance.
Bowser came out against the ballot measure in an appearance on WAMU’s “Kojo Nnamdi Show” last week — comments that the “Save Our Tips” coalition against Initiative 77 have featured in a social media campaign.
“If people vote for it, they will be voting for decreasing the pay of the thousand of servers who are making a living and a good living in D.C. right now,” Bowser said.
The ballot measure’s supporters say the opposition from D.C. politicians was expected.
“Ballot initiatives are precisely to go around elected officials who aren’t listening to the majority of their constituents,” said Diana Ramirez, director of Restaurant Opportunities Center D.C. “D.C. voters know that’s the right thing to do, to give tipped workers in the District better wages and better tips. . . . We hope that the council respects the will of the voters.”
If Initiative 77 passes, the District would join seven states that do not have a tipped wage, including California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Nevada, Montana and Minnesota.