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Tipped Workers in D.C. Won at The Ballot Box. Now the City Council Might Overturn Their Victory.

Bryce Covert

“Who gets to decide what women of color make in the District? Is it going to be a trade lobby or is it your constituents?”

Voters in Washington, D.C., last week passed Initiative 77, a ballot measure requiring the city’s tipped workers be paid the same minimum wage as those who don’t earn tips. But the measure’s fate is uncertain, as the mayor and most of the city council didn’t support it before it passed while the restaurant industry remains vehemently opposed to the measure.

If it takes effect, workers in D.C. restaurants, nail salons, bars, and car washes will make at least $12.50 an hour, instead of the lower $3.33 rate they can legally be paid today.

Last Tuesday’s vote was carried by the city’s lower-income and Black neighborhoods, while wealthier and whiter areas of D.C. voted against it in a low-turnout Democratic primary election. “It’s not a surprise for us, frankly,” said Diana Ramirez, director of ROC-DC, a chapter of Restaurant Opportunities Center United, an organization that advocates for getting rid of the tipped minimum wage and put the issue on the ballot. “This is exactly who the initiative is going to help. It’s the women of color who are living in poverty.”

Women and people of color are disproportionately represented among tipped workers, who experience a higher poverty rate than non-tipped workers. ROC’s research has found that tipped workers in states where they’re guaranteed the same minimum wage as other workers report experiencing sexual harassment at half the rate of those in states with a lower tipped wage.

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“We’ve known all along this is a racial justice issue, this is a gender justice issue,” Ramirez said.

The law must now undergo a 30-day Congressional review, so it might not go into effect until the fall. Between now and then, things could change dramatically. “Any of the council members can introduce legislation to amend the law at any time,” Ramirez said.

Most of the council was against Initiative 77 while it was being debated in the city. At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman said she leaned in favor of it, and Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh said she supported the ballot measure. Mayor Muriel Bowser was against it. But it’s unclear whether any of them will introduce legislation to either modify it or halt it altogether. Three members of the 13-member council responded to a request for comment from Rewire.News—Chairman Phil Mendelson and Councilmembers Robert C. White Jr. and Brandon T. Todd—and all said it was too early to say what they might decide to do.

“The Chairman has not definitively indicated whether or not he will overturn the initiative,” said Lindsey Walton, communications director for Mendelson, an opponent of Initiative 77. “He is committed to talking with colleagues to see where they stand and what the next steps might be after the results are certified by the Board of Elections. Should the Council take action, it would not likely be until the fall.”

ROC has not heard anything concrete about what the council might have in store. Ramirez noted that if no one introduces legislation before members go into recess on July 15, the issue will be kicked to the fall.

One potential change could be allowing it to take effect, but only guaranteeing tipped workers get a portion of the full minimum wage. “That’s absolutely not okay with us,” Ramirez said. “We’re not going to negotiate on a lower wage.” Another potential change could be delaying its implementation, but ROC wouldn’t support that either. “We’ve been fighting this for so long,” Ramirez said. “We just want the full wage. How hard is that to understand? We want to get paid by our employers.”

ROC isn’t waiting around. The group is bringing together allies to push the council to let the law take effect the way voters approved it, including a number of groups that are in favor of D.C. statehood and pro-democracy organizations. These groups “may or may not have agreed with Initiative 77, but they strongly believe in respecting the democratic process,” Ramirez said, especially as some advocates are fighting for D.C. to have independence from Congressional oversight and even get status as a state. “Don’t meddle with this, don’t overturn the will of the voters, respect democracy,” she said.

Ramirez said it’s particularly salient when voters approved Initiative 77 at the same time they voted for these same councilmembers. “You trust us when it’s time to reelect you, but do you not trust us when it comes to initiatives?” she asked.

ROC is planning for its members who earn tips and are in favor of Initiative 77 to speak out in front of the city council. “Leading up to the election a lot of our members were afraid of retaliation because they were being told by their bosses to be against this,” Ramirez said. So she’s going to try to get them to “come out of the shadows” and testify. “I think workers’ own stories will be very impactful,” she said. “I don’t think we have to get too creative, just let the workers speak their truth and it will be victorious.”

ROC has some education to do. Many employers told their workers that if they have to pay them $15 an hour by 2020, they’ll have to cut shifts or even close up shop. But research ROC released in 2014 found that employment growth had been above average in states that abolished the lower tipped wage, including in restaurants. Restaurant sales also increased. While some servers have worried that getting a higher base wage would reduce their tips, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Tipped workers in states without a lower tipped wage make 15 percent more per hour, including both their wages and their tips, than those in states where they only have to be paid the federal minimum of $2.13 an hour.

ROC members won’t be the only ones making a case to the city council. Save Our Tips, a coalition backed by the National Restaurant Association and other industry players that waged a campaign against Initiative 77, put out a statement after it passed saying, “[O]ur conversation isn’t over with the public or with our elected officials .… We will keep fighting.”

While the group represents tipped workers who are against getting rid of the lower minimum wage, it is also serving the interests of big business. That, Ramirez said, could make the difference in D.C. “We know it’s them,” she said. “We saw through the misinformation campaign.”

ROC plans to ask the council, “Who gets to decide what women of color make in the District? Is it going to be a trade lobby or is it your constituents?”

“That’s what it comes down to,” she said. “Who’s more powerful, who’s more influential?”

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