With D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) gliding to reelection and council members facing fairly low-key challenges, the fiercest fight ahead of the city’s June 19 election is over a ballot measure that would shake up how servers, bartenders and others who earn tips are paid in the nation’s capital.
Initiative 77 would phase out the lower “tipped wage” that allows restaurants and bars to pay those workers a low hourly rate as long as customer tips reach minimum wage. If it passes, the current $3.33-an-hour minimum wage for tipped workers would steadily rise to $15 by 2026.
Supporters say the measure would mean workers would no longer have to rely on the generosity of customers — and in some cases, put up with harassment — and it would ensure a consistent income. It would also address “wage theft,” where an employer fails to make up the difference as required by law when a worker’s tips don’t add up to the minimum wage, supporters say.
But the loudest opposition has come from workers the measure is designed to help, with hundreds mobilizing to argue the initiative could result in lost hours and pay.
Their passions were in full force Tuesday evening as about 200 people packed the Black Cat music venue for a Washington City Paper forum on Initiative 77.
“Tipping has always been and still has been always very racist and sexist,” said Diana Ramirez, director of Restaurant Opportunities Center D.C., an offshoot of a New York-based organization that is behind the measure.
She was interrupted by boos from a raucous crowd that frequently heckled supporters of the ballot measure.
“Even though you are providing a good service, people’s inherent biases still show up on that service line,” Ramirez said, adding that it would also change the dynamic for servers who are sexually harassed by customers.
But opponents said that line of argument reeked of opportunism.
“You say no tipping when you want to add on to the #MeToo movement,” said Jill Marie Tyler, co-owner of Tail Up Goat in Adams Morgan. “It seems like it’s a little co-opting something because it’s a popular political movement.”
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who made a surprise appearance at the event where his primary opponent, Ed Lazere, was featured as a panelist, blamed sexual harassment in restaurants on “the relationship between the a--hole patron and the server, not tips.”
Several servers who oppose the ballot measure pressed proponents on why there weren’t more vocal supporters of Initiative 77 who currently work in the restaurant industry.
Venorica Tucker, a tipped worker who declined to name her employer, said many workers aren’t outspoken because they fear retaliation or are immigrants who are uncomfortable speaking out.
“They are going to be quiet and not do anything and shut up and take it,” she said.
Kathy Hollinger, who leads the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, said the ballot measure would throw a booming industry into chaos. To compensate for higher labor costs, many restaurants would be forced to add a service charge, she said.
“If this initiative passes, I just want people and voters to be clear that operators have to find a way to make up for a huge discrepancy for a business model that was in place with a tipped credit,” Hollinger said. “When they do the service charge, I don’t think the diner will tip on top of that.”
Although June 19 is a primary election, independent voters can cast ballots on Initiative 77.