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D.C. Council overturns wage hike for bartenders, servers — four months after voters approved it

D.C. lawmakers took initial steps to overturn Initiative 77. In June, voters passed the law that would increase wages for tipped workers. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

D.C. lawmakers on Tuesday voted to overturn an initiative that would have raised the minimum wage for servers, bartenders and other workers who rely on tips, just four months after voters easily passed the measure.

On an 8-to-5 vote — the first of two necessary votes — the D.C. Council approved legislation repealing Initiative 77. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said she would sign the repeal legislation.

Initiative 77 is part of a national campaign to end a two-tier minimum-wage system that allows restaurants and others to pay tipped workers a few dollars an hour as long as customer gratuities add up to the standard minimum wage. The D.C. measure would have gradually raised the current $3.89 hourly tipped wage until it matched the standard minimum wage in 2026.

The pros and cons of surviving on tips: Listen to workers, bartenders, restaurateurs tell their stories

The restaurant industry said the initiative would hurt the District’s thriving dining scene, and some workers at high-end establishments said that they earn more than the minimum wage in tips and did not want changes. They worried that if their hourly wage went up, restaurants would cut staff or customers would scale back on tipping. They found a sympathetic audience on the council.

“If the law is a bad law, it should be amended or repealed. It does not matter if the law was adopted by the council, the voters or Congress,” said Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who led the repeal charge.

He was joined by council members Anita Bonds (D-At Large), David Grosso (I-At Large), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4), Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) and Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8).

Opposing repeal were Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6).

Silverman tried to negotiate a compromise to keep Initiative 77 alive by exempting servers and bartenders, who disproportionately came out against the measure, from the wage increase.

She wanted to keep the wage hike for other categories of workers such as parking lot attendants and hotel bellhops, as well as workers in restaurants who share gratuities, such as barbacks and food runners. Those workers don’t earn enough in tips to reach the standard minimum wage, and their employers ignore requirements that they make up the difference, proponents of Initiative 77 have said.

Silverman grew impassioned and pointed out pro-Initiative 77 workers in the council chambers in her final plea for her proposal.

“For those who are voting repeal, look them in the eye and tell them that their vote doesn’t matter and that they don’t deserve a higher wage,” said Silverman, drawing a rebuke from Mendelson for violating decorum. Fifty-six percent of voters approved of Initiative 77 in the city’s June primary election.

But only four other lawmakers supported her amendment to the repeal bill, the same members who ultimately voted against Mendelson’s bill. None of the seven lawmakers who originally sponsored the repeal bill defected.

Diana Ramirez, who leads the advocacy group behind Initiative 77, said proponents would continue fighting for a pay increase.

“The one-fair-wage movement is something that’s not going away,” said Ramirez, who leads the D.C. branch of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. “We either come back again on the ballot, whether that’s a ballot initiative or something else. But we need to send a message that what they started doing today is not okay, and there will be consequences for overturning this.”

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United spearheaded Initiative 77 after lawmakers declined to eliminate the tipped wage in 2016, when they decided to raise the standard minimum wage to $15 by 2020.

Kathy Hollinger heads the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington , which launched a campaign to overturn Initiative 77 just hours after the polls closed in June and it was clear that the measure had passed. On Tuesday, she celebrated the council’s move.

“We’ve had this growth in terms of restaurants opening, neighborhoods growing and employment rising in our communities. That will be able to continue,” Hollinger said. “Workers will be able to continue earning the income that they were or have the ability to earn in an industry that provides upward mobility.”

Mendelson added some aspects of Silverman’s compromise proposal to his repeal legislation, including a tip line to report wage-theft violations and a mandate for restaurant owners and managers to undergo annual training about sexual harassment.

“Those provisions are a far better alternative than changing the wage structure,” Mendelson said.

An analysis by the city’s chief financial officer found that the new provisions would cost the city more than $2.6 million over four years and that there wasn’t enough money in the budget to absorb the expenses.

That means the council would have to budget funds for them to take effect.

Tuesday’s vote marks the fifth time D.C. lawmakers voided a ballot measure. Previous overturned initiatives would have imposed term limits, campaign finance restrictions, mandatory minimum jail sentences and a sweeping right to shelter for homeless people.

Critics blasted the latest attempt to overturn an initiative as undemocratic, particularly in a city where residents bemoan the fact that they have no voting representation in Congress.

A small group of clergy held a sit-in at Mendelson’s office last week, and some residents have promised to vote against any lawmaker who backed repeal.

“We should consider what signal repealing this initiative would send when our turnout in elections is already embarrassingly low,” said Robert White, the at-large lawmaker who opposed Initiative 77 and voted against repeal. “We cannot reject the will of the voters.”

Seven states require employers to pay a standard minimum wage regardless of tips: California, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Minnesota, Montana and Nevada.

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United also pushed similar ballot measures in Maine and Michigan to increase the minimum wage for tipped workers. Lawmakers in Maine overturned the initiative last year, and the legislature in Michigan blocked the measure from appearing on the ballot.