The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Judge halts effort to put Initiative 77 wage back on D.C. ballot

Activists organize petitions  at the D.C. Board of Elections in an effort to vote again on an initiative to raise the District’s minimum wage for tipped workers. A judge ruled that an error by the board meant that the efforts for the referendum had to stop.
Activists organize petitions at the D.C. Board of Elections in an effort to vote again on an initiative to raise the District’s minimum wage for tipped workers. A judge ruled that an error by the board meant that the efforts for the referendum had to stop. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

A D.C. Superior Court judge halted efforts Wednesday to force a new referendum on a law approved by voters — but repealed by the D.C. Council — that would overhaul how servers, bartenders and other tipped workers are paid.

Advocates were poised to submit more than 25,000 signatures needed to again ask voters next spring to require employers to pay a higher base wage to tipped workers. Voters approved that measure — known as Initiative 77 — in June, but a majority of the D.C. Council overturned it several months later.

Judge Neal E. Kravitz agreed with opponents, who are backed by the local restaurant industry, that elections officials failed to follow proper procedure when they allowed referendum supporters to collect signatures.

The judge’s ruling came as petition organizers were turning in boxes of signatures that they had collected at breakneck speed in the past week.

Kravitz said the D.C. Board of Elections can accept the signatures but not take any action on them. That way, if his ruling is overturned on appeal, the referendum can move forward.

What workers, restaurateurs and more say about Initiative 77

But because of the District’s unique relationship with Congress, and the city’s rules governing the referendum process, advocates had only until Thursday to win an appeal of that ruling.

Any law passed by the D.C. Council undergoes a 30-day congressional review. In the case of repeal of Initiative 77, that period expires Thursday. To hold a referendum on a law, petitioners are required to turn in enough signatures from registered voters to qualify for the ballot during the congressional review period.

Pulling off the feat was always considered a long shot — no referendum to reverse a council vote has qualified for the ballot since 1991.

Referendum supporters unsuccessfully argued in court that they shouldn’t be penalized because elections officials made a procedural mistake. Kravitz ruled that the D.C. Board of Elections did not give the public enough notice about a meeting it held last month on the language of the proposed referendum and, as a result, it could not proceed.

Diana Ramirez, who leads the D.C. branch of Restaurant Opportunities Center United, which is trying to get the measure back on the ballot, said her group won’t give up.

“Folks are clearly outraged — they are signing in the thousands a day, and for a mistake by the Board of Elections to throw us off, for the money of the restaurant lobby to hold us off, it’s frustrating and disappointing, but we can’t just fall off and not get back up,” Ramirez said.

Opponents were elated.

Valerie Graham, an Adams Morgan bartender who filed the lawsuit to challenge the petition effort, said she felt a “tremendous, tremendous sense of relief” after the ruling.

“What’s at stake is survival of our industry and ability of people to thrive in our industry,” said Graham, who has worked as a bartender in the city for two decades. “. . . The vast majority of people I interact with on social media say we don’t want this.”

By 56 percent to 44 percent, voters in June opted to end a two-tier minimum-wage system that allows businesses to count gratuities when paying workers. But under heavy lobbying by the city’s burgeoning restaurant industry and with support from Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), the council voted 8 to 5 to repeal the law four months later.

In their fight to repeal the repeal of Initiative 77, advocates had just a week to collect tens of thousands of signatures — a drastically condensed time frame.

Restaurant Opportunities Center Action, the campaign arm of Ramirez’s group, budgeted $200,000 for an ambitious effort that had as many as 200 people a day collecting signatures. Paid circulators received $3.75 per signature — about four times the standard rate.

Meanwhile the Employment Policies Institute — a think tank opposed to raising the minimum wage — ran robo-calls and Facebook ads urging residents to not sign the petitions.

The District’s minimum wage is $13.25. But employers need to pay tipped workers only $3.89 an hour if gratuities make up the difference.

Initiative 77 would gradually raise the tipped wage until all businesses pay the same minimum wage by 2026.

No, Initiative 77 didn’t end tipping. A guide to the new measure

Supporters say the law would provide workers a more stable income because of the unpredictability of tipping. Opponents say existing law allows restaurants to thrive in a thin-margin industry and hire more people, enabling workers to make well above the minimum wage with generous tips.

In an otherwise sleepy election year, tipping emerged as a contentious fight in city politics, touching on issues of class, race and democracy.

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, with funding from left-leaning foundations, sponsored the D.C. ballot measure as part of a national campaign to end the tipped wage. The voter initiative was an end-run around the local politicians, who declined to eliminate the tipped wage as part of a $15 minimum-wage deal in 2016.

How a national fight over tipping made its way on to the D.C. ballot

The restaurant industry has mounted fierce opposition to ROC’s efforts, joined by hundreds of workers who fear a pay cut if Initiative 77 is enacted.

Seven states — including the entire West Coast — have done away with the tipped wage system or never had it. ROC’s attempts to expand those ranks at the ballot box has been stymied by lawmakers of both parties in Maine, Michigan and the District.

The issue of representative democracy is especially sensitive in the District, where 700,000 people have no vote in Congress.

The council’s repeal of Initiative 77 also brought a backlash from residents angered that their elected leaders would overturn the will of the voters. But the lawmakers said they were acting in the best interest of the city and of the tipped workers, who lopsidedly lobbied them in favor of repeal.