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Initiative 77 tipping wars in D.C. moves from campaign to Council

Diana Ramirez, director of the D.C. chapter of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, speaks Wednesday on the steps of the John A. Wilson Building. Ramirez and other supporters of Initiative 77, which passed Tuesday, urged D.C. Council members to “uphold the will of the voters.” Supporters are concerned that the council will overturn the controversial ballot measure. (Reis Thebault/The Washington Post)

The intense political fight over a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage for restaurant servers, bartenders and other workers who earn tips shifted on Wednesday to the D.C. Council, as supporters and opponents try to win lawmakers to their side.

Opponents of Initiative 77, led by the restaurant industry, want the council to overturn the ballot measure, which voters approved by a margin of 55 percent to 44 percent. But supporters are demanding that the council respect the results of Tuesday’s election, saying it would be undemocratic to negate the will of voters.

Now, city leaders find themselves in the uncomfortable position of deciding whether to cancel a pay raise approved by voters in a city with some of the most labor-friendly laws in the country.

On Wednesday morning, as council members and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) were still recovering from their victory parties the night before, nearly 30 supporters of the ballot question gathered on the steps of the District government building to call on the city’s leaders to abide by the ballot results.

“The people voted; the people made a statement; you need to respect what the people had to say,” said the Rev. Graylan Hagler, an organizer with the Poor People’s Campaign. “And whatever you do, you need to stand by and lift up democracy rather than tear it down through your own whims and your own campaign contributions and those folks that you think you are aligned to. You’ve got to be aligned to the voters in the District of Columbia, because that is what democracy means.”

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Meanwhile, Kathy Hollinger, president and chief executive of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, said she began talking about a repeal with Bowser, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and members Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) and Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) as early as election night.

“We have a lot of members who have independently told me they have been reaching out not only to Mendelson but all 10 of the elected officials who stood with us going into the vote because they feel strongly a fix is necessary,” she said. “Most voters weren’t even sure what they were voting for.”

Restaurant owners and some servers say that raising the minimum wage for tipped workers will upend the economics of the dining scene, resulting in higher prices for diners, smaller tips for workers, and increased costs that could force closures.

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 $3.33 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. Initiative 77 will gradually increase the hourly pay for tipped workers to $15 by 2025, so that there is one standard wage for all workers.

The new law will affect workers in the city beyond the restaurant industry, including hotel bellhops, parking lot attendants, pizza deliverers, hair stylists and others who receive gratuities.

Ransom Beatty, a bellhop at the Hamilton Hotel in downtown Washington, earns $10.50 an hour before tips. He said Initiative 77 was badly needed.

“We’re trying to make a living like everyone else,” he said. “You can’t depend on tips to pay your rent.”

He said $15 an hour would make a big difference, because tips often fluctuate. Sometimes, guests will hand him $1, other times $5. Or they’ll just smile and thank him.

“And sometimes we don’t even get that,” he said.

Before Tuesday’s vote, 10 out of 13 council members opposed the measure, as did the mayor. One of those members, David Grosso (I-At Large) even urged opponents to apply pressure on the council to overturn the measure if it passed.

Restaurant industry vows to fight ballot measure to increase workers’ pay

After election officials certify the results from Tuesday’s election, Initiative 77 will head to Congress for a review period, as all D.C. laws do. That could stretch into fall, depending on the summer recess.

D.C.'s Initiative 77 passes, further regulating employers' mandate to ensure that tipped workers take home at least minimum wage for each hour worked. Although Initiative 77 was silent on the issue of tipping, many fought it as a battle ground over whether tipping--and the restaurant industry--would survive in the District. (Video: Billy Tucker/The Washington Post)

The council and the mayor can amend or repeal it, just as they can with any other law.

Despite their victory at the polls, advocates for Initiative 77 suggested Wednesday that they are willing to strike a compromise with lawmakers.

“It’d be great if we could come to an agreement so that we don’t have to fight in front of council,” said Diana Ramirez, who leads Restaurant Opportunities Center D.C., the local branch of a national nonprofit that is also campaigning to raise the tipped wage this year in New York and Michigan. “We’re absolutely willing to sit down with the restaurant association and entrepreneurs and restaurant owners to get there.”

But Hollinger of the restaurant association said she isn’t interested in compromise, which already happened in 2016 when lawmakers struck a deal with the business community to gradually increase the standard minimum wage to $15 and the tipped wage to $5.

“People met in the middle raising the minimum wage,” said Hollinger. “It’s really about fixing what has been voted in by a very, very low turnout, misled, misguided effort where voters didn’t know what they were voting on.”

About 18 percent of the city’s 479,723 registered voters cast ballots on Tuesday, the lowest turnout in a mayoral primary in three decades.

A spokeswoman for Mendelson, who easily won reelection after campaigning against Initiative 77, said he’s going to survey the rest of the council before deciding how to proceed.

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The political terrain is strange because voters in nearly every precinct — except the wealthiest parts of the city — backed higher wages for tipped workers while also reelecting incumbents who opposed them.

Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), whose downtown and Georgetown-area ward narrowly rejected Initiative 77, is the only lawmaker who has publicly endorsed full repeal.

“It’s not really the will of the people; it happens to be the will of the 17 percent of people who showed up and voted,” said Evans, echoing a common refrain from opponents. “It’s really up to the council to act in the best interests of the city.”

That’s what happened in Maine in 2017, when workers who earn gratuities persuaded their state legislature to overturn a ballot measure that had eliminated the tipped wage.

The only lawmaker who supported Initiative 77, Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), said repeal is easier said than done.

“Even if you were against it on the merits, now the council has to answer why it’s appropriate to change the law after the people have voted in favor of it,” she said.

In the past, the council has voided term limits, minimum mandatory sentences for drug dealers and the right of the homeless to shelter on demand — all measures approved by voters.

Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), who did not take a clear position on Initiative 77 before the election, said she opposes repeal but would favor changing the terms so that businesses have more time to adjust wages beyond the eight years outlined in the measure.

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Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who opposed the ballot measure, wants to hold a public hearing before making any decisions.

Grosso, the member who had invited opponents to pressure the council to repeal the measure if it passed, said the initiative “is vague enough so that it needs some action” but wouldn’t specify what should be done.

Organizers at the Restaurant Opportunities Center say they expect the campaign in favor of Initiative 77 may grow more intense now, after the election, as supporters feel emboldened by their electoral victory.

Some say they’re ready to lobby the council.

“For them to overturn it, I think would be a huge mistake; it would hurt workers, not help them,” said Trip Brennan, a 25-year-old bartender at Hill Prince in the H Street corridor. “They just need to see the people of the city decided this is what they wanted. They should work to make sure it’s implemented smoothly and ultimately benefits workers.”

Todd and fellow council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) did not say where they stand regarding repeal. Their colleagues, McDuffie, Anita Bonds (D-At Large), Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) and Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), did not respond to requests for comment.