Opposition from nearly every elected official and a well-funded campaign by the restaurant industry proved no match as District residents on Tuesday backed a ballot measure to raise the minimum wage for servers, bartenders and others relying on tips.
It was the biggest surprise in a low-turnout primary election in which every incumbent handily prevailed.
Initiative 77 phases out the “tipped wage” that allows D.C. employers to pay workers as little as $3.33 an hour and count tips toward their minimum wage. Under existing law, employers must make up the difference if tips do not bring a worker’s pay to the $12.50-per-hour mandate.
Under the measure passed Tuesday, the minimum wage for tipped workers would gradually increase to $15 by 2025. The next year, all businesses would pay the same minimum wage, which would automatically rise with inflation.
But the fight is not over: Congress and the D.C. Council can void the measure. Ten of 13 members of the council, as well as Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Attorney General Karl Racine (D), publicly opposed the measure.
The council is likely to face pressure from restaurateurs, who strongly opposed the measure, to intervene. But local progressive activists and the Restaurant Opportunities Center, which advocates for restaurant workers, are also mobilizing to protect the election result.
“For so long, there has been such frustration over not respecting voters in D.C., and the fact that D.C. has not been able to speak for itself,” said Restaurant Opportunities Center founder Saru Jayaraman, who is overseeing a national campaign to scrap tipped wages. “Here voters have spoken for themselves. Their will should be respected.”
At a victory party at the Brookland Busboys and Poets, Diana Ramirez, director of Restaurant Opportunities Center D.C., said she is “so excited” by the victory, which she said “shows D.C. voters saw through the deceptive rhetoric” of the restaurant industry.
Restaurant associations and owners who bankrolled the opposition campaign said that the tipped-wage system helps them stay open in an industry where profit margins are slim and that the passage of Initiative 77 could lead to higher prices, layoffs and shuttered businesses. Perhaps surprisingly, hundreds of workers agreed that a higher base wage could threaten their livelihoods and mobilized against the measure.
“I can’t lie, I am disappointed. I trust that the council will listen to the tipped employees of D.C. and take action to protect our voices, which have been loud and clear,” said Dawn Williams, a 32-year-old server at Daikaya who said she makes more than $30 an hour. “The intentions seem good on paper, but it will hurt us and our burgeoning, diverse restaurant industry.”
Khalid Pitts, a co-founder of Cork Wine Bar & Market and leader of the opposition effort, said Initiative 77 did not pass with a clear voter mandate in a primary election that had otherwise low turnout.
“It clearly indicates that this is a question still to be determined and that tipped workers are going to be continuing this conversation with the general public and continuing this conversation with the city council and the mayor,” Pitts said.
Researchers, as well as restaurateurs and workers in states without tipped wages, say customers will still tip even when servers and bartenders are paid a full minimum wage. But higher labor costs would lead many to raise prices and some to close down.
The question of paying restaurant workers became the hottest topic in an otherwise sleepy election — forcing voters to educate themselves on a complicated issue. Diners have been greeted with “No on 77” signs in restaurant windows and on pamphlets with their bills. Neighborhood listservs and Facebook groups have erupted in debate.
Opponents — primarily funded by the National Restaurant Association and Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington — raised more than $350,000 against Initiative 77, while the Restaurant Opportunities Center provided much of the $270,000 campaign to support it.
“We cannot accept as final a vote in a primary election, in the middle of the summer, on a ballot measure the language of which was, at best, misleading,” said Kathy Hollinger, chief executive of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. “All of us, not an out-of-town interest group, know what is best for workers, businesses and the residents of the District of Columbia, and we shall continue to make our case with those who have ultimate responsibility for the District’s laws.”
The Restaurant Opportunities Center contends that many employers do not pay workers the difference when gratuities fall short of minimum wage and that making workers rely on tips exacerbates racial and gender inequality. They blamed the lack of workers publicly supporting the measure on fear of retaliation and harassment.
The few workers who spoke in favor hailed Tuesday night’s result.
Venorica Tucker, 69, who has worked for nearly three decades as a tipped worker on Capitol Hill and was at the the Busboys and Poets party, smiled when she heard that early voters overwhelmingly backed Initiative 77. She said she is hopeful it will change the lives of future tipped workers.
“I support this measure for the people who will come after me — I wish it had been something that was available to me,” said Tucker, a Restaurant Opportunities Center volunteer.
Tucker, a native Washingtonian, said she sometimes had to choose between “keeping the lights on and paying my bills” as she was raising three sons and working as a bartender and server.
Initiative 77’s success provides momentum to the Restaurant Opportunities Center’s “One Fair Wage” campaign to eliminate the restaurant industry’s exemption from minimum-wage laws.
Officials in New York and Michigan are also considering ending their tipped-wage system this year, as is already law in seven states — California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Nevada, Montana and Minnesota. Voters in Maine approved a ballot measure to eliminate the tipped wage in 2016, but the legislature voided the results.
“We are going to be continuing the fight in New York and Michigan and 10 other states where this is moving over the next year or two,” Jayaraman said. “It confirms this is an issue that most people want, particularly communities of color, particularly women.”
A $15 minimum wage negotiated by labor groups and D.C. lawmakers in 2016 did not include the elimination of the tipped wage, prompting the Restaurant Opportunities Center to take its case directly to voters.
Initiative 77 cannot be enacted until the fall because election officials need to formally certify its passage and because of a congressional review period.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who campaigned for reelection on a platform opposing Initiative 77 and handily defeated a primary challenger who supported it, declined to say whether he would try to void the measure.
“I’m not going to speak to that,” Mendelson said. “I’m going to let the dust settle.”
Asked about Initiative 77 at her victory party, Bowser said, “I want to really sit down and evaluate its impact with restaurant workers and people affected and see if they will be able to afford a quality of life in the city.”
Other members of the council have previously called on tipped workers to lobby them for repeal if the measure passed.
In interviews at polling places, some voters said they were torn between their desire to raise wages in an expensive city and the loud opposition to the measure.
Some said they were surprised that the hottest issue in the race seemed to be about restaurant worker pay, rather than the city’s struggles with affordable housing, rising homicides and scandals in education.
Eli Blum, who lives with two restaurant workers, said he was turned off by the industry-driven campaign against the measure.
“There’s something a little bit off about how in-your-face it’s been,” said Blum, a 29-year-old teacher who cast a ballot in Mount Pleasant. “Your employer supporting a no vote is strong pressure for you at least to keep your mouth shut. I ultimately went for it because it aligns more with what I believe about the world.”
Molly Scott, a 41-year-old landscape architect, said she gave a lot of thought to the measure
“I have a lot of friends in the industry, so it was near and dear to my heart, but it’s complicated, and it’s not an easy thing,” said Scott, after voting no in Bloomingdale. “It’s not nuanced enough, and the language isn’t necessarily going to, in my mind, solve the problem . . . and the issues of low-wage workers having a living wage.”
Rachel Chason, Reis Thebault and Victoria Knight contributed to this report.