The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Initiative 77 to raise tipped wage in D.C. seems doomed at council hearing

Valerie Torres, center, testifies before the D.C. Council on Monday during a hearing on Initiative 77.
Valerie Torres, center, testifies before the D.C. Council on Monday during a hearing on Initiative 77. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
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District lawmakers Monday grappled with whether they should take the extraordinary step to overturn a law approved by voters that raises wages for servers, bartenders and others who earn tips.

A marathon hearing on a bill to repeal Initiative 77 started at 11 a.m. and was expected to stretch late into the evening, with about 250 witnesses scheduled to testify.

A majority of the D.C. Council backs repealing the ballot measure that passed in June that requires employers to pay the standard minimum wage to tipped workers. The minimum wage in the District is $13.25 an hour, but employers are allowed to pay tipped workers $3.89 an hour, as long as tips make up the difference. If they fall short, employers are supposed to pay the rest.

The measure’s supporters say that some workers are not earning minimum wage even with gratuities and that others have to contend with abuse or harassment from customers to earn tips. Opponents say the measure would mean higher labor costs, which could lead to higher prices, fewer jobs and a possible pay cut for workers if customers skimp on tipping because they figure their server is being paid more by the employer.

How would Initiative 77 reshape D.C.’s dining scene?

Council chambers were packed at capacity, with opponents of Initiative 77 appearing to outnumber supporters.

Lawmakers who have been aggressively lobbied by both sides said they don’t take overturning the will of the voters lightly. But seven members who favor repeal say it is necessary to protect the city’s burgeoning dining industry.

“The right thing to do here is repeal a bad law,” said council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), drawing applause from the audience. “It’s going to be detrimental to our local economy.”

No vote was scheduled Monday, but Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) has indicated he would like to overturn Initiative 77 by early October, before the ballot measure is scheduled to become law.

Some lawmakers said they want to find ways to address the concerns raised by Initiative 77 supporters even if it is nullified.

Hear from workers on both sides of the issue on Initiative 77

“It’s highly likely this is going to be repealed,” said council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who opposed Initiative 77 but hasn’t taken a position on repeal. “If the math is the math, what is the alternative?”

A glimmer of hope for Initiative 77 supporters came from council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), one of seven authors of the repeal bill, after he said he was open to a compromise measure. Others including Allen, Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) and Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) said they wanted to find some kind of middle ground to avoid outright repeal.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), the only lawmaker who supported Initiative 77, is proposing a compromise that would phase in the law gradually, increasing the current $3.89 hourly tipped wage to $15 an hour over 15 years instead of eight.

But it’s unclear if she can find seven votes for her proposal, which has been blasted by the restaurant industry and Mendelson.

Elected officials increasingly target laws passed at the ballot box

“It doesn’t work. It just extends a bad law,” John Guggenmos, who co-owns several gay bars in the District and chaired an anti-Initiative 77 campaign, said under questioning by Cheh.

Five hours into the hearing, nearly every witness called for repealing Initiative 77.

“Listen to the workers: We are overwhelmingly telling you we do not want this, and we were never consulted on this in the first place,” testified Laura Pacholkiw, a bartender.

Saru Jayaraman, founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, the advocacy group behind the ballot measure in the District and elsewhere, had predicted a groundswell of support for Initiative 77 if lawmakers moved to repeal it. But that wasn’t evident Monday.

Trupti Patel, a bartender and one of the few tipped workers who testified against repeal, complained about the unpredictability she and others face when they have to rely on tips for their income. “It’s economic roulette each shift,” she said.

Sophia Miyoshi, a former tipped worker and organizer with Restaurant Opportunities Center of Washington, said many workers are afraid to speak out in favor of Initiative 77.

“They don’t want to be ostracized from the restaurant community, which is very close-knit in D.C., and they also have immigration status concerns,” Miyoshi said.

Mendelson seemed skeptical.

“I never know what to do about folks who don’t speak out because someone else says they are intimidated,” said Mendelson. “They can still step up to me and say, ‘Hey, I support this.’ I haven’t heard from anybody.”

More than half of voters — 56 percent — approved Initiative 77 in the June 19 primary. Every ward backed the measure except Ward 3.

Several lawmakers defended themselves against critics who said it would be undemocratic to void a ballot measure approved by voters.

“I cannot shirk my role as an elected member of this body,” said council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who opposed Initiative 77 but has yet to explicitly endorse repeal. “It is the responsibility of this council to ensure we thoroughly and thoughtfully review this law.”

Restaurant Opportunities Center United pushed similar ballot measures in Michigan and Maine, encountering resistance from state lawmakers of both parties.

Last year, state lawmakers in Maine overturned a tipped wage hike approved by voters in 2016.

In Michigan, Republican lawmakers found a novel way to block a tipped-wage ballot measure before voters have a say. They passed a law this month increasing the tipped wage, rendering the measure on November ballot moot. Then they plan to take up bills to undo the wage increase on a simple majority vote, rather than the three-fourths majority required to overturn ballot initiatives.

Seven states require employers to pay tipped and non-tipped workers the same minimum wage — California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Nevada, Montana and Minnesota.