After hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign spending, tens of thousands of voters heading to the polls and hundreds of angry calls and emails to lawmakers, a contentious fight over restaurant workers’ pay in the nation’s capital ended with a quick vote by the D.C. Council.
The initiative would have ended a system that allows employers to pay tipped workers a few dollars an hour as long as customer gratuities add up to the standard minimum wage. It would have gradually raised the current $3.89 hourly tipped wage until it matched the standard minimum wage in 2026. Servers and bartenders make up the bulk of tipped workers.
The Council again voted 8 to 5 to repeal the initiative, the same margin as the first vote earlier in the month. Lawmakers who opposed repeal unsuccessfully tried to preserve a watered-down version of the law. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) plans to sign the bill.
The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington hailed the repeal as good news for the city’s thriving dining scene and for workers who feared their bosses would cut hours or customers would be stingy with tips if the measure became law.
Restaurant Opportunities Center United, which sponsored Initiative 77 as part of a national campaign to change working conditions in the restaurant industry, said it would keep fighting for a standard minimum wage for all workers. Organizers say existing law invites problems, from unpredictable income for workers to wage theft — employers who fail to make up the difference as required when their employees do not earn enough in tips to add up to minimum wage.
The repeal bill contained provisions to address some of those concerns, including a hotline to report wage theft, as well as mandatory sexual harassment training for restaurant managers. Lawmakers must fund those provisions in the upcoming budget for them to take effect.
The decision by the council to repeal the initiative inspired a debate about democracy in the District, where many voters already feel disenfranchised because they lack voting representation in Congress.
The lawmakers who voted for repeal were Chairman Phil Mendelson (D); Anita Bonds (D-At Large); David Grosso (I-At Large); Jack Evans (D-Ward 2); Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4); Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5); Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7); and Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8). Those who opposed repeal were Elissa Silverman (I-At Large); Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large); Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1); Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3); and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6).
The D.C. Council has now overturned five voter initiatives — most recently in 2001, when lawmakers scrapped a measure imposing term limits on local politicians.
There may be another clash of voters, elected lawmakers and outside groups on the horizon.
Airbnb.com has threatened to try to overturn home-rental legislation under consideration by the council with a ballot measure in 2020, which could be overturned by the council if it passes.