Initiative 77 pits the restaurant industry against progressive groups in a city with some of the nation’s most generous mandates for worker benefits.
Tipped employees were exempt from the 2016 minimum wage hike that steadily raises the floor to $15 an hour by 2020, then ties future increases to inflation.
Instead, the law set a base hourly pay of $5 for tipped workers by 2020, which would also rise with inflation. Employers must make up the difference if workers don’t receive enough tips to make minimum wage.
But critics of the split-wage system say some workers face intimidation and retaliation when they tell their bosses that tips came up short. They say low-income workers in the restaurant industry deserve the same predictable income as other employees.
After failing to persuade lawmakers and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), advocates for a uniform minimum wage are taking their case to voters. And they are presenting a new line of argument in light of increased awareness about sexual harassment.
“In this Me Too moment, in this Time’s Up moment, we have to stand up for women and empower women and really call this two-tier wage system for what it is: a source of sexual harassment,” said Diana Ramirez, director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center D.C., which is sponsoring the ballot initiative.
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“If you know that you are getting a base wage from the employer, and a customer is acting inappropriately with you, you don’t have to put up with that behavior anymore to make a good tip,” she said.
Opponents of the ballot measure say that there’s thin evidence to suggest that tips and sexual harassment are linked, and that existing law provides strong protections against wage theft.
Restaurant owners say their profit margins are already thin, and mandating higher wages could hurt the city’s booming restaurant scene.
“The reality is, tipped employees make far more, at least in this market, than what the minimum wage is,” said Kathy E. Hollinger, who leads the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.
Paying workers $15 an hour plus tips, she said, would force restaurant owners “to reduce hours and staff size, increase menu prices, replace tipping with a set hourly wage and, unfortunately, many times close their restaurants.”
Some restaurant workers say the tipped wage system works well for them.
“If menu prices jump through the roof because labor costs have tripled, then what happens is people don’t have the money to tip on top of that,” said Ryan Aston, a bartender at the Hamilton in downtown Washington and board member of the Restaurant Workers of America. “If you can’t make 15-plus-plus-plus an hour in a restaurant, you should probably just not be in a restaurant. We all chose to work for tips.”
Ramirez fired back that critics like Aston who are able to pull in decent money with tips aren’t the norm.
“Nobody asked the black woman working at the IHOP in Columbia Heights if she doesn’t want to be saved,” Ramirez said. “Those are the types of members we work with: women and people of color who are not making the minimum wage.”
Proponents of the ballot measure say that in the seven states that have eliminated the tipped wage, fears of reduced income for workers and lower profits for restaurants haven’t been realized. Those states are California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Nevada, Montana and Minnesota.
Further accentuating the need for a single wage, they say, is a Trump administration proposal that would let employers pocket tips that are left for their employees.
Under D.C. law, Initiative 77 is appearing on the ballot during the June primary because it was the next available election after the measure was certified. It will coincide with Democratic primary elections for mayor and D.C. Council members, which essentially decide races in an overwhelmingly blue city.
Bowser has yet to draw a credible challenger in the mayor’s race, but the new ballot measure could become an issue in council races.
“Many low-paid servers are women and put up with harassment from patrons because they depend so much on tips. Eliminating the low tipped minimum wage reduces harassment,” tweeted Ed Lazere, a progressive activist challenging council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) in the primary.
At a recent candidate forum, two of the Democrats vying to unseat council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large) — Jeremiah Lowery and Marcus Goodwin — said they support eliminating the tipped wage.
Representatives for Mendelson and Bonds said they were in hearings and not immediately available to comment on the tipped wage.