David Montgomery/CityLab

Support for the controversial ballot measure, which will raise the minimum wage on tipped employees, fell on familiar race and class lines.


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On Tuesday, voters in Washington, D.C., weighed in on a dispute between two national restaurant associations over an increasingly contentious issue: tipping.

With 55 percent of the vote, the city passed Initiative 77. The ballot measure, tacked onto the city’s local primary election, raises the base wage for tipped workers, who receive less than minimum wage under federal law. The National Restaurant Association was joined by a vocal majority of restaurant owners, bartenders, and servers in the District in strongly opposing the pay raise. Owners argued that the increase will wreck fragile profit margins. Front-of-the-house staffer insisted that their careers are at stake.

For the pro-77 side, meanwhile, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United asked workers why they would turn down a pay raise. The supporters of the measure argued that it would benefit the tipped-wage works overlooked by the debate on social media, from valets to nail-salon workers. Economic wonks mostly lined up for 77, saying that tipping wouldn’t end if the base wage gradually rose to minimum wage.

Perhaps predictably, the ballot measure split D.C. voters along rigid social lines. Support for the measure ran strongest in the city’s predominantly African American neighborhoods, while majority white areas opposed it. The interactive map below shows how a vote on wages for some of the city’s poorest workers revealed a classic segregation pattern in the District. Click on a particular precinct to see how they voted.

(David Montgomery/CityLab)

If the debate over Initiative 77 was a revealing glimpse into people’s assumptions about bias and privilege, then the vote was even more so. Support for a tipped-wage increase was strongest in the city’s northeast quadrant and east of the Anacostia River, areas whose population is poorer and predominantly black. Meanwhile, to the west, where the city’s whiter and more affluent population lives, opposition to the tipped-wage increase was fiercest.

The map of the vote offers a few surprises. For example, in Chinatown, an entertainment district dense with bars and restaurants, the vote was split evenly: Initiative 77 won precinct 129 by one vote. Residents of Chinatown aren’t more likely to frequent or work in bars, of course. Still, a slight majority of residents living near the city’s main commercial corridors sided with 77—and against the the “Save Our Tips” campaign advertised in most every storefront window.

The final vote tally was hardly a representative measure for the city. Just slightly more than 80,000 voters weighed in on Initiative 77, which is less than 12 percent of the city’s total population. A local primary in a midterm national election year never crushes the polls, but this election in particular was marked by safe victories for incumbent office holders. Arguably, a ballot measure in such a low-stakes election was an inappropriate way to establish a controversial new policy.

Whether D.C. has summoned a restaurantpocalypse upon itself remains to be seen. The city’s government will still need to implement the tipped-wage hike; most members of the City Council opposed the measure, and the council could still intervene. Since it is designed to increase gradually, the National Restaurant Association has plenty of time to strike back—as it did last year in Maine, where the state legislature overturned a tipped-wage increase approved by voters at the ballot. The debate in D.C. likely isn’t finished.

Another battle over the tipped wage is already taking shape in New York. In December, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a series of statewide hearings to discuss eliminating the tipped wage and paying all workers the baseline minimum wage. The issue is already proving to be just as divisive in New York as in D.C. People in both places—and anywhere else where this policy rears its head—should consider the role that race and poverty play in shaping voters’ assumptions.

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