Eric Butler examines a stack of petitions to bring the issue of compensating tipped workers back to the D.C. ballot. He is working out of a Northwest D.C. home that serves as a war room for verifying signatures. (Fenit Nirappil/The Washington Post)

Activists are scrambling to collect thousands of signatures needed to revive a law approved by voters but overturned by the D.C. Council that would change how the District’s servers, bartenders and other tipped employees are paid.

Voters in June approved Initiative 77 to gradually end a two-tier minimum wage system that allows employers to count gratuities when paying workers. Months later, the D.C. Council overturned the initiative. Now advocates are trying to hold a referendum vote on the council’s action — essentially asking voters to repeal the repeal.

But a combination of procedural rules, legal challenges and bad timing left referendum supporters with a week to collect about 25,000 signatures required to put the issue back on the ballot.

If they can collect enough signatures, the city would hold a special election early next year.

Officials with the “Save Our Vote” coalition have deployed more than 100 signature collectors outside supermarkets, government buildings, bars and even dog parks to pull off what seems like an insurmountable task. They are paying circulators $3.75 a signature with the possibility of more, quadruple the standard rate. Workers have been working around the clock in a Northwest D.C. house since last Thursday, verifying that signatures belong to registered D.C. voters.


A group of about 20 clergy and activists on Thursday, Sept. 27, staged a sit-in in the office of D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) to protest efforts to repeal Initiative 77, which voters approved in June to raise wages for tipped workers. (Fenit Nirappil/The Washington Post)

Restaurant Opportunities Centers Action, the campaign arm of the advocacy group pushing to end the tipped wage system across the country, has budgeted $200,000 for signature collection.

But referendum supporters acknowledge they have their work cut out for them.

Similar signature collection efforts in the District have required weeks or months. Others that finished at breakneck pace turned out to be rife with fraud.

“The system is set up against the democratic process,” said the Rev. Graylan Hagler, an anti-poverty activist and spokesman for Save Our Vote. “It’s unfair, it’s daunting, but the reality is that’s what the city has in place to make it daunting to make it so you don’t have to hear back from the voters.”

D.C. law has strict rules for holding referendum votes on council-approved legislation. No referendum has qualified since 1991.

Referendum supporters must collect the required signatures within the 30-legislative-day congressional review period for all D.C. laws. That period can vary depending on thecongressional calendar. For the Initiative 77 repeal, the review period is expected to end Thursday, before federal lawmakers recess for the holidays.

Moreover, elections officials must give the public at least 10 days to challenge proposed language for petitions to place the referendum on the ballot.

The election board was expected to approve petitions after that period ended Nov. 27.

But a bartender represented by an attorney for the local restaurant association filed a lawsuit against the referendum efforts, blocking signature collectors from receiving petitions until late Tuesday night.

Both sides are due in court again Tuesday on additional issues related to the referendum efforts.

The deadline to submit signatures is Wednesday. Referendum supporters are discussing ways to get an extension, including asking a judge to count days lost because of the legal dispute and challenging the city’s referendum process.

“This is crazy pressure. Nowhere in the country are referendums under this kind of timetable,” said Adam Eidinger, a pro-marijuana activist who is volunteering to lead signature-collecting efforts to save Initiative 77. He orchestrated a successful 2014 ballot measure to legalize pot in small quantities, which took nine weeks to collect enough valid signatures.

A townhouse near the South Korean embassy in Kalorama — once used as headquarters for marijuana legalization efforts — is the new war room for the tipped wage referendum efforts.

On Friday morning, seven workers sitting in front of laptops checked stacks of petitions to make sure the names and addresses match what’s in the city voter file. Empty boxes of Domino’s pizza rested in the corner. A flier advising the “dos and don’ts” of signature collecting warned against arguing with opponents of Initiative 77: “They are wasting our time, and we don’t have enough.”

Workers verified more than 14,000 signatures as of Sunday afternoon, according to Eidinger, with three full days left.

Eric Butler is managing the signature verification for the referendum after serving a similar role for other initiatives.

Initiative 77 is personal for him since he earns tips from his occasional job delivering pizza and has seen the difference when he lived in California, where employers have to pay a standard minimum wage to all hourly workers, regardless of whether they get tips.

“The narrative is that they are going to take away tips if you get the minimum wage, but tipping is in our culture,” said Butler, a 34-year-old Michigan Park resident.

The Initiative 77 saga has prompted debate over tipping culture and how to best compensate workers.

Supporters say hourly workers in the service industry should not have to rely on tips to survive. Current law requires employers to pay them at least $3.89 an hour. If, after tips, they make less than the standard minimum wage of $12.50 an hour, employers are supposed to make up the difference — but some don’t, advocates say.

Initiative 77 would gradually increase the hourly pay for tipped workers to $15 by 2025, so that there is one standard wage in the city for all hourly workers.

If the policy is enacted, the District would join seven states that mandate employers pay one standard minimum wage.

Restaurateurs — and hundreds of workers who make above the standard minimum wage because of healthy tips — say the current system works well because it allows businesses to survive in a low-profit industry.

“We will just continue to stand with our local operators and local workers to preserve what’s in place, which is a repeal of a very bad law,” said Kathy Hollinger, who leads the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington and began lobbying council members for repeal hours after voters approved Initiative 77.

It has also prompted a debate over democracy, with many residents on both sides of the issue angry at elected lawmakers for overturning the will of voters. In June, voters approved Initiative 77 by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent.

Repeal of the law also struck some as hypocritical because local lawmakers howl when Congress uses its power to overturn laws and spending decisions made by the D.C. Council.

Lawmakers who voted 8 to 5 to repeal in October said it was in the best interest of protecting businesses, workers and customers.

Saru Jayaraman, who leads Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, predicted that voters’ anger toward the repeal of a ballot initiative would help her group defy the odds and qualify a referendum.

“People really feel that it’s complete voter nullification,” Jayaraman said. “People feel very motivated to have the chance to overturn the council’s repeal.”