At least three D.C. Council members said Monday that they will lead an effort to repeal a ballot initiative approved by voters last month that raises the minimum wage for food servers, bartenders, bellhops and others who earn gratuities.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) and members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) said they intend to file a bill on Tuesday to overturn Initiative 77, which voters approved 56 percent to 44 percent in June.
The ballot initiative phases out the “tipped wage” that allows D.C. employers to pay workers as little as $3.89 an hour and count tips toward the standard minimum wage of $13.25 an hour. Under the initiative, employers are required to gradually increase hourly wages for tipped workers until they reach what will be the uniform minimum of $15 an hour by 2025.
The restaurant industry fought the measure, arguing that raising wages for tipped workers could lead to higher costs for restaurateurs and diners and lower tips for wait staff.
“Initiative 77 is something I believe will be very harmful to our restaurants and, more importantly, our restaurant workers,” Evans told a gathering of restaurant workers and owners, who cheered his announcement Monday morning before walking into the Wilson Building to lobby the council members.
But advocates behind Initiative 77 attacked any repeal effort as unfair.
“It would be deeply undemocratic for council to overturn the will of the people,” said Diana Ramirez, a spokeswoman for One Fair Wage DC. “D.C. voters don’t like it when Republicans in Congress do it, and we trust council will not stoop to that level. In our preelection poll, over 80 percent of D.C. voters said they would be concerned if council overturned their vote. The people are watching. Council must set any sour grapes aside and push ahead.”
The repeal legislation would not be taken up until the fall, after the council returns from its summer recess. It would probably be the first salvo in protracted negotiations between the ballot measure’s supporters and the council.
Kathy Hollinger, head of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, said the initiative deserves repeal because it has created turmoil within the city’s growing restaurant industry.
“It’s just creating this mass public confusion,” she said, noting that the measure passed during a primary election that had a record low voter turnout. “It’s a very complicated issue. It’s just not something that should have been on the ballot.”
It wouldn’t be the first time the city’s lawmakers overturned a decision by the electorate.
Since the 1980s, the council has overridden the results of four ballot initiatives, including a decision in 2001 when the D.C. Council overturned term limits approved by voters for the mayor, council and Board of Education.
“If you’re in a city struggling to get representation in the first place, that’s a terrible signal to say that your own local officials don’t respect their own citizens,” Paul Jacob said in 2001, when he was director of an organization that favored term limits. “It’s a very unusual step for an elective body to throw out a vote of the people.”
Evans said he’s carrying out the will of Ward 2 voters.
“I represent the people; I was elected,” he said.
Voters in Evans’ ward actually approved Initiative 77 by a margin of 51 to 49 percent.
Several D.C. Council members said Monday that they hoped to reach a compromise with the supporters of Initiative 77 that would make the measure less burdensome for restaurants.
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who opposed the initiative, said that he had “heard fairly unanimously from workers themselves saying that this would lead to decreased shifts, decreased hours, and decreased wages and pay.”
But he was unsure whether the council should go against the voters.
“I also take seriously that there was a ballot initiative and it passed,” he said. “I think the council should hold a hearing on this, and I think that the council is absolutely going to have to make changes to it.”
Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), who did not take a stand on Initiative 77 during the campaign, said she is “not likely” to support repeal. But she said she had begun meeting with service industry workers and restaurant owners in an effort to understand ways the initiative could be improved.
“I want to make sure that we have a thriving restaurant industry and that workers are paid fairly,” Silverman said.
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) — the only District lawmaker who publicly backed Initiative 77 before its passage — said she opposed repeal but was open to modifications. One of those changes could be a delay in the measure’s implementation timeline, she said.
“The bottom line here is to do no harm to the restaurant industry in the District, but at the same time to provide a fair and moral wage to workers who get tips,” Cheh said.
A spokesman for council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) said she needed to review any proposed repeal legislation before deciding whether to support it.
A spokesman for council member David Grosso (I-At Large) said Grosso had no comment.
Rita Lewis, communications director for council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), said White had no position on repeal.
On his way back into the Wilson Building, Evans greeted Hollinger, of the Restaurant Association, and told her, “Now, go talk to my colleagues — camp outside their offices.”