Michael Saltsman is managing director at the Employment Policies Institute, which receives support from restaurants, foundations and individuals.
Call it the wage increase that wasn’t.
In June, 10 percent of registered D.C. voters supported Initiative 77, a ballot measure to raise the base wage for tipped employees by 200 percent. Proponents of the measure portrayed this low-turnout win as a meaningful one. Yet a survey of voters who supported the idea shows that a majority wrongly thought they were supporting a minimum-wage increase to $15 — a workplace standard that is already D.C. law.
Initiative 77 was funded mostly by a New York- and California-based labor nonprofit called the Restaurant Opportunities Center and its affiliated 501(c)4 ROC Action. It was loudly opposed by most of the District’s servers and bartenders; they argued that the measure, while sold as a pay raise for tipped employees, would result in reduced income and put many servers’ jobs at risk.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D), Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and a majority of the D.C. Council also opposed Initiative 77, echoing servers’ concerns about the potential consequences of the measure. Mendelson also pointed out that the ballot language — which promised to “gradually increase the minimum wage . . . to $15 hourly by 2020” — misled voters to think they were supporting what was established policy. (The council unanimously passed a $15 minimum wage in 2016.)
Mendelson was right to be concerned about voter confusion. Shortly after the June 19 election, my organization used Google’s Consumer Survey service to poll roughly 500 D.C. residents who voted “yes” on Initiative 77. (The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 4 percent.) Of those who voted yes, more than half said they did so primarily to eventually raise the District’s minimum wage to $15 an hour — something the District already did.
Not surprisingly, only half of yes voters said they would outright oppose the D.C. Council intervening to reverse the vote and preserve the current wage structure for tipped employees.
A bill to repeal Initiative 77 was introduced before the council adjourned for its summer recess; seven of the District’s 13 council members are co-sponsors of the bill. The Restaurant Opportunities Center and its allies cried foul, claiming that the council was overturning “the will of the people.” These survey results suggest otherwise. Even among the small subset of D.C. voters who showed up for the primary election, 56 percent either voted no or now agree that their yes vote should be repealed.
More than 100 tipped employees showed up to cheer the repeal effort in a rally in front of the John A. Wilson Building. Proponents of Initiative 77, who lack the same grass-roots support among employees, enlisted Jane Fonda to lobby the council to keep the measure. (Fonda, a wealthy California resident, is a strange choice as a representative for D.C. restaurant employees.)
The Restaurant Opportunities Center desperately needs these gimmicks to win in the District. The people behind the group have invested significant financial resources in the District and in similar fights to change the tipping system in New York and Michigan. As in the District, they’re fighting tipped employees who oppose their agenda. But the Restaurant Opportunities Center has so far failed to win its policy goal on a straight up-or-down vote, which is why the group has (sometimes dishonestly) paired it with more-popular-sounding policies such as a minimum-wage increase.
The Restaurant Opportunities Center’s result in D.C. was a false positive — a low-turnout election with a poorly worded initiative that misled thousands of voters. Fortunately, the D.C. Council isn’t so easily tricked.