In greenlighting a ballot measure to ultimately eliminate the tipped minimum wage, D.C. voters have rejected restaurant-industry warnings that the move would threaten the city’s thriving culinary scene, considered one of the best in the country. The chief executive of the city’s restaurant association vowed Tuesday night to take the fight to the D.C. Council, which could overturn the decision.
The final vote was 44,353 to 36,090 in favor of Initiative 77, which is poised to require businesses to gradually increase pay so all workers earn at least $15 an hour by July 2025. The city would then have one minimum wage that rises with inflation.
The District and most states exempt workers who earn tips from the standard minimum wage, allowing employers to pay servers, bartenders, bellhops and others just a few dollars an hour, on the assumption that gratuities will boost workers’ pay to cover the full minimum wage. In Washington, tipped workers must be paid at least $3.33 an hour, and if their tips do not bring that up to $12.50 an hour, employers are required to make up the difference.
It’s a system that D.C. restaurateurs say has served them well for years — and one that they may have to abandon after an outside labor organization got Initiative 77 placed on the primary ballot. Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a New York-based worker-advocacy group, pushed for the wage restructuring, and its founder, Saru Jayaraman, was delighted at Tuesday’s vote, calling it “historic.”
“The voters made history, recognizing that living off tips alone means living in poverty for way too many women, people of color and immigrants,” Jayaraman said in a statement. “The voters have spoken, the workers have spoken, now it’s time for the City Council to listen and to implement the will of the voters. We can reduce rates of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry and end poverty among tipped workers, while helping restaurants to take a high road to profitability. This election victory belongs to the workers—to the hard-working women and men who deserve the dignity that comes with a real paycheck and better tips.”
D.C. restaurant owners were still trying to figure out what the vote would mean for them — or if they even need to worry about it yet. Kathy Hollinger, president and chief executive of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, said the fight over Initiative 77 is “not over.”
“It needs to be addressed with the [D.C.] Council,” she said Tuesday night in a phone interview. “This is not a measure that can be upheld.”
Together, RAMW, the National Restaurant Association and individual business owners raised $340,000 to fight Initiative 77, and Hollinger said her group will “continue to have conversations with the city” over the measure. She said the “language on the ballot was intentionally very confusing” to voters, a point that she is likely to reiterate to the council.
The measure that voters approved read, in part, that if enacted, “this initiative will gradually increase the minimum wage for tipped employees so that they receive the same minimum wage directly from their employers as other employees by 2026.”
“It’s such an unfair question,” celebrity chef and restaurateur José Andrés recently told The Washington Post’s Mary Beth Albright.
“It’s an unfair question because the answer will be very simple. ‘Sure I want them to make $15. Sure, I want them to make as much as they can. I want them to do good.’ This is too black and white,” Andrés continued. “We need something that is more like a rainbow, much more comprehensive. [It] can’t just be done voting yes or no with a very bad question that doesn’t really portray the opportunities and the problems.”
Andrés, a vocal opponent of Initiative 77, could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.
Ashok Bajaj, founder of the Knightsbridge Restaurant Group, which includes Rasika, Bindaas and other restaurants in Washington, predicted the vote will cause the local industry to “change dramatically”: Prices will go up, but diners will continue to tip. “On a whole, I think dining out will be a lot more expensive,” he said, and the added expense will force Washingtonians to cut back on their dining out.
Those restaurants clinging to small profit margins, Bajaj predicted, “probably won’t stay in business.”
ROC United made Washington its latest battleground in a war over tipped minimum wages and tipping — and the problems associated with the practices, including racial and gender bias, chronic poverty, sexual harassment and income disparity between front-of-the-house servers and back-of-the-house cooks. The group’s ultimate goal, Jayaraman has said, is to eliminate the federal tipped wage.
Initiative 77 will now head to Capitol Hill for a 30-day congressional review, during which lawmakers could alter or overturn the measure. The D.C. Council could also step in. After all, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and a majority of the council had announced opposition to the initiative. The council could pass legislation that repeals the measure or could try to implement something that helps workers at big-box chain restaurants without hurting the small independents.
There is precedent for overturning the will of the people. In 2016, Maine residents passed a referendum to increase the tipped minimum wage to $12 by 2024. But last year the state legislature overturned it — largely due to tipped workers themselves, who lobbied for the government to restore the old system. The battle looks like it will next move to New York, where Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) has been holding public hearings to gather input on a potential plan to eliminate the tipped minimum wage in the state.
In going to the polls, D.C. voters appeared to be well-informed about the initiative. Joanna Pratt, 67, and Stephen Samuels, 66, a couple from Chevy Chase, voted yes on 77. They conducted a lot of research, they said, including asking servers outright what they thought of the measure. Samuels said he was convinced by economic-policy articles he read and other cities that have implemented similar measures.
“For cities that have already enacted it, it seems to be working there,” he said.
Edward Hayes, 71, used to own a restaurant himself — Vivaldi’s in Chevy Chase. He also voted yes on 77.
“It would do more for workers who are not in the big restaurants,” he said. “Initiative 77 would help minority workers and those on the margins.”
Reached in Texas, restaurateur Jeff Black was shaken by voters’ decision. “You can’t afford to give somebody a 500 percent pay raise and not have it come from somewhere,” he said. That somewhere would be a service charge, which will be split with all workers, front or back of the house. “All my best servers will leave this city. They will move out and … take jobs in Maryland and Virginia.
“This is singularly the dumbest, most ill-thought-out concept that has ever happened to the hospitality industry,” Black continued. “Period. End of discussion.”
Reporter Reis Thebault contributed to this report.