The fight over tipping and how restaurant workers are paid in the nation’s capital may be returning to the ballot.
The D.C. Council this month repealed Initiative 77, which voters passed in June to require employers to pay more to servers, bartenders and other workers relying on tips.
Now supporters of Initiative 77 are trying to hold a referendum vote on the council’s decision to overturn the ballot measure.
They want to repeal the repeal.
“We know people are disgusted because their vote has been overturned, even folks who did not vote for Initiative 77,” said the Rev. Graylan Hagler, an anti-poverty activist who is part of a coalition trying to bring the issue back before voters.
WAMU first reported plans for the referendum vote.
Initiative 77 is part of a national campaign by the worker advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United to end a two-tier minimum wage system in the District and elsewhere. Current law allows D.C. employers to pay tipped workers $3.89 hourly as long as the additional money they earn from gratuities adds up to the standard $13.50 minimum wage. If tips fall short, the employer is required to make up the difference, although there are cases where employers fail to do so.
The ballot measure would have gradually raised the lower tipped minimum wage until it matched the standard minimum wage in 2026.
The council voted 8 to 5 this month to repeal Initiative 77, and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) signed the bill last week. The bill is expected to be submitted to Congress for review in the coming weeks, as is required under the city’s Home Rule Charter.
To hold a referendum on the bill, proponents need to collect signatures from 25,000 eligible voters during the 30-day congressional review period. That window counts only days when Congress is in session, so signature collectors could have as long as two months.
If the referendum qualified for the ballot, the repeal bill would be blocked from taking effect until voters had another say during a special election.
If the referendum passes, the council cannot amend it for at least one year. After that year ends, the council could again try to halt Initiative 77, keeping the fight going.
The council included other provisions in the repeal bill to address concerns raised by Initiative 77 supporters, including mandatory sexual harassment training for restaurant operators and a new tip line to report wage theft if employers don’t make up the difference when gratuities fall short of the minimum wage. Hagler said the referendum vote wouldn’t target those provisions.
The repeal of Initiative 77 prompted a backlash from some voters outraged that their elected representatives overturned their decision. The debate is especially tense in the District, where residents already feel disenfranchised because they lack a vote in Congress.
Since the late 1970s, the D.C. Council has overturned four other ballot initiatives approved by voters — measures dealing with term limits, campaign finance, mandatory minimum jail sentences and a right to shelter for homeless people.
Hagler said a referendum on the repeal bill is a chance to send a message to the council.
“This has to be our line in the sand to say we can’t be talking out of both sides of our mouth as a city,” said Hagler, who led sit-ins at council offices to protest repeal. “We have to demand Congress respect our vote, and we have to respect our vote.”
Kathy Hollinger, the leader of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, said Restaurant Opportunities Centers United needs to concede defeat.
“It’s another attempt by this outside organization to push an issue that’s so misunderstood and so detrimental to not only workers, but small businesses and D.C.,” said Hollinger. “Eight of the members of the council saw that clearly and voted for repeal.”
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said supporters of Initiative 77 should listen to the servers and bartenders who have lopsidedly told lawmakers they fear that the measure would lead to lower take-home pay if customers tip less and bosses cut hours.
“The effort to keep this alive ignores the overwhelming opposition from workers whom these nonworkers claim to be helping,” Mendelson said.
Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), who unsuccessfully tried to preserve a watered-down version of Initiative 77, said the council should revisit her compromise proposal in an attempt to stave off another vote on the issue. Her plan called for exempting servers and bartenders — the bulk of the tipped workforce — from the pay raises under Initiative 77 but preserving the increases for parking lot attendants and others outside the restaurant industry.
Silverman is running for reelection against Dionne Reeder, a restaurant co-owner who has criticized both Initiative 77 and the council for repealing it. Reeder initially declined to comment on attempts to secure a referendum vote but hours later said the city should do a better job educating voters about the implications of the ballot measure before a new election is held.