The D.C. Council could vote as early as Tuesday to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour, putting the nation’s capital among a vanguard of jurisdictions boosting low-wage pay to try to combat growing income inequality.
Under a proposal by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), the District would join New York and California in ratcheting up the city’s hourly minimum to $15 from $10.50.
The proposed increase would more than double the federal minimum of $7.25, which is paid to workers in 21 states including Virginia.
“This will be a historic victory for workers and a message heard nationwide,” said D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), whose committee passed the legislation last week and who predicted victory Tuesday before the full council. If passed, a final vote on the wage bill could come before the end of the month.
The District’s minimum wage was scheduled to increase in July by $1 for the third time in three years. Under the bill, it would increase about an additional 70 cents a year thereafter, reaching $15 by 2020. After that, increases would be tied to inflation.
Although the wage increase would give unionized grocery workers, health-care aides and others a victory in their “Fight for $15” campaign, the legislation has fractured a coalition of labor groups that have been pushing for a ballot measure in the District for a $15 minimum.
That’s because, under intense lobbying from the city’s restaurant industry, the council measure would allow a large discrepancy to remain between the guaranteed pay for most low-wage workers and those who earn part of their wages through tips.
While the council bill would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, it would increase hourly rates to just $5.55 for restaurant servers and other tipped workers, who currently earn a guaranteed $2.77 an hour.
The ballot measure pushed by labor groups would require employers to pay everyone $15 an hour, including waiters and others who also earn tips. A similar wage structure is in place in San Francisco.
Employers in the District and in most states are responsible for paying employees the difference between their base pay and minimum wage if tips do not make up the balance. But at a D.C. Council hearing last month, some tipped workers testified that they are too intimidated to ask for additional pay when tips fall short. Others described confrontations when they alleged they were owed additional money because tips were insufficient.
The labor groups backing a ballot initiative have been gathering signatures to get the question before voters in November.
But on Friday, leaders of some of the District’s largest labor unions were holding private talks with Orange and the Bowser administration about whether to abandon their effort.
At $15 per hour, the District’s minimum wage would increase hourly pay for an estimated 70,000 D.C. employees, according to city data. That would also probably pressure employers to increase wages for an additional 44,000 who now make just above $15, according to a study by t he Economic Policy Institute. The study concluded that would mean an additional $2,900 annually for those in the bottom 14 percent of city wage earners.
If a ballot measure passed, Bowser and council members would face a choice: honor the will of the voters or enact their two-tiered plan of $5.55 an hour for tipped workers and $15 an hour for everyone else. About 29,000 workers in the District earn tipped wages, according to advocacy groups.
But the notion of higher tipped wages has mobilized the city’s powerful restaurant industry. The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington says the increase is unnecessary because nearly every server earns more than the minimum wage and that tips enable some to earn as much as $70 per hour.
Requiring restaurant owners to raise labor rates to $15 an hour would upend businesses that operate on thin margins, trade groups say.
Orange and others involved in the talks with unions Friday said they were focused on making sure the full council would support a $15 minimum wage and $5.55 tipped rate in exchange for unions dropping the ballot measure.
Bowser proposed a version of a $15 minimum wage in March, as lawmakers in New York and California were nearing similar deals. On the D.C. Council, labor-friendly lawmakers including Orange, who faces reelection this month, picked up the measure and have pushed it through to a vote.
Orange largely kept the mayor’s proposal intact but lowered her proposed tipped rate from $7.50 an hour to $5.55. Scores of restaurant workers and owners testified before Orange’s committee that they feared the higher base pay could push employers to lay off workers or eliminate tips altogether and adopt service charges to cover labor costs that could result in less pay for workers.
One group representing tipped workers, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, does not want to abandon the goal of a $15 minimum for all workers.
Saru Jayaraman, a co-founder of the group, said it seems that Bowser and the council are trying to rush through the minimum-wage legislation to preempt a November ballot measure.
“But there’s absolutely no chance we’re going to let that happen,” she said. “We’ve collected enough signatures and we need 100 percent of the minimum wage for all. Without it, we’re leaving out some of the most vulnerable workers in the industry — women and single moms who live very precariously on tips. . . . It’s wrong.”
Bowser’s chief of staff, John Falcicchio, said conversations continue about the right tipped-worker rate. He defended fast action on the bill, repeating Bowser’s slogan that a minimum-wage increase would help create a “pathway to the middle class” for many D.C. workers.
“The only reason we would race to do this is that of all the measures that are out there . . . this is the most impactful one that puts money directly in the pockets of working families,” he said.
Tipped base rate
Proposed minimum wage, by 2020
Proposed tipped base rate, by 2020
Tipped base rate
Tipped base rate
* Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have a minimum wage of $9.55, but a tipped base rate of $4 and $3.63 respectively.