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Ex-restaurant worker brings back D.C. initiative to raise tipped minimum wage

Signs in restaurants around the city urge votes against Initiative 77 in 2018, when the increased wage for servers was last considered. (Dayna Smith for The Washington Post)

A former D.C. restaurant worker is reviving an effort to raise the city’s tipped minimum wage.

The ballot initiative, filed Tuesday to the D.C. Board of Elections by laid-off server Ryan O’Leary, closely resembles Initiative 77, which was passed by 55 percent of District voters in 2018. That measure — which would have ended the two-tier minimum-wage system that allows employees to include gratuities while paying workers — was repealed by the D.C. Council months later.

O’Leary’s potential 2022 ballot initiative has the same end goal: By 2027, it would raise the base minimum wage for tipped employees from the current rate of about $5 per hour to the city’s standard minimum wage, which will increase from $15 to $15.20 an hour July 1. The increases for tipped employees would come in steps, beginning in 2023.

Now an organizer for the D.C. chapter of the advocacy group One Fair Wage, which backed Initiative 77, O’Leary said in a news release that he was inspired to revive the measure after he was laid off near the onset of the pandemic and was “forced to confront how precarious our positions in the service economy truly were.”

Howard University senior Aniyah Vines is co-introducing the ballot initiative.

“I believe we can restore dignity in work by paying fair wages,” she said in a statement. “I know too many individuals who feel they have no other choice but to withstand workplace harassment to hustle for tips because they desperately needed the money.”

The D.C. Board of Elections will have two months to approve the initiative before organizers can begin circulating a petition. They will then have 180 days to collect about 26,000 valid signatures before March to place the initiative on the June 2022 primary ballot.

Initiative 77 was opposed by some restaurant workers and owners who said that the system worked well and that increased labor costs would hamper their businesses. The D.C. Council voted 8-5 to repeal the initiative. Three of the members who voted in favor of the repeal — David Grosso (I-At Large), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) — have since been replaced on the council.

Later in 2018, a D.C. Superior Court judge halted a long-shot effort by advocates to force a new referendum that would have reversed the council vote.

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