Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
Does paying tipped workers the minimum wage spell death for the city's restaurant industry, or dignity for the city's employees?
In June, Washington, D.C. voters passed a contentious ballot initiative that would mandate the city’s tipped workers be paid a minimum wage of $15 an hour by 2026. The measure quickly became a heated referendum on how employees that live off tips—servers, bartenders, bellhops, bellboys, and other hourly workers—should be compensated, and who should compensate them. Opponents warned the measure would gut the city’s Michelin-star-studded restaurant scene; supporters argued that not all tipped workers are tipped enough to get by.
But shortly after 56 percent of D.C. residents voted in favor of the measure, the city council swooped in to propose a measure for its reversal. The still-rousing debate reached a breaking point Monday night as a hearing on Initiative 77’s repeal drew over 200 witnesses, who waited as much as 16 hours to testify before the council.
Well before the 11 a.m. start time, a sea of people had gathered outside the city council’s hearing room, many of them wearing black t-shirts: some emblazoned with “#Protect77,” “NoRepeal,” and “#OneFairWage”; and others with the anti-77 symbols that had marked several storefronts this spring. Boos, cheers, and yells of “Lies!” erupted throughout the afternoon in a downstairs hearing room, where the spill-over crowd watched a live-stream.
“This initiative is a mistake,” said James Roderick, a tipped worker in D.C., as 3 a.m. neared. “To come out and say we’re doing it wrong, and leave it up to people who don’t understand, who make false accusations and claims, makes me sick as a D.C. voter and a human being.”
The initiative is a matter of human dignity, others countered. “Restaurant owners treat you with the same amount respect that they pay you,” said Zakina Bramble Hakim, a server. “If they’re paying you $3.89, they treat you as cheap, expendable labor.”
As witnesses filed out of the building after 3:20 a.m., Initiative 77 seemed no closer to being saved.
The way tipped wages have historically worked is that employees have a significantly lower base salary than other workers, but one that’s supplemented by tips. In D.C., for example, tipped workers currently make $3.89.
Tips are supposed to bring up their pay to the minimum wage of $13.25 an hour, and the law mandates that employers pay the difference if workers don’t make enough tips to cover it. By 2020, the city’s standard minimum wage will have increased to $15 (And the tipped minimum under 77 would be phased up accordingly.)
But servers and tipped workers argue that often, wage theft means that minimum wage isn’t met; that it’s people of color and immigrants who are shafted most often; and that a salary dependent on tips encourages sexual harassment and abuse.
Already, California and Washington state have passed almost identical “One Fair Wage” policies, and a recent study out of the Economic Policy Institute suggests tipped workers in San Francisco and Seattle, which are also phasing in a $15 minimum wage, earn more than their D.C. counterparts.
Anti-77 voters argue that a city-wide tax isn’t needed to weed out the few bad apples that fail to pay their employees adequately—and that raising the tipped minimum wage would raise operating costs, lower tips, lead to layoffs, and shutter mom-and-pop restaurants. In the lead-up to the June primary vote, it was national groups that mounted the most aggressive influence campaigns: The National Restaurant group helming the anti-77 side; the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, a workers’ rights organization, supporting the measure on the other.
The proposed repeal has been justified partly by the claim that the measure was worded misleadingly on the ballot—Mendelson claims voters were led to think tipped servers were not subject to minimum wage laws at all—and that these national groups had an outsize influence on a decision voters should have made for themselves. Pro-77 organizers, however, say the proposed repeal only works to disenfranchise voters—the same constituents that voted many of the current city council members into their seats.
“We already had a district-wide hearing,” Dianna Ramirez, the co-chair of ROC, told me: “The June vote.”
As demonstrated in this map created by CityLab in June, the demographic and geographic divide in how precincts voted on the measure was stark: White, wealthy neighborhoods voted overwhelmingly against the measure, while predominately black, low-income neighborhoods voted for it. (Still, only 12 percent of D.C.’s population weighted in on the measure.)
People of color make up 70 percent of the tipped workforce in D.C. but only 55 percent of the overall workforce. “This is suppressing the black vote,” said Ramirez. “It’s not just about defending fair and equitable pay, but defending the decision made at the ballot box,” said Matt Hanson, the director of D.C.’s Working Families party, during the hearing.
The about-face is rare, but not-unprecedented: The district has reversed a voter-backed initiative only four times since the 1980s, according to the Washington Post; and Maine’s legislature reversed a tipped wage increase after the voters approved it via ballot.
Monday’s hearing offered supporters and detractors a final chance to make their case, and for city councilors to explain their stances.
“This won’t end before midnight,” Ramirez predicted. She was right. (The marathon was intentionally orchestrated as such, she added: “We could have had two hearings, or we could have started at 8am.”) Washington City Paper’s live blog has a detailed accounting of the testimonies.
Kenyan McDuffie, councilmember for Ward 5, advocated for repealing what he believes to be a “bad law.” “Tipped workers in Ward 5 do not support initiative 77. They do not believe it to be a pay raise, they believe it to be a pay cut,” he said. “We’re going to hold restaurant owners and everyone in a position to enforce accountable where it exists, but the reality is, Initiative 77 is not going to create the equity we want the way it is shaped—I think it’s going to be detrimental to our local economy.”
Brandon Todd, councilmember for Ward 4, argued that “nuanced deliberation was not afforded through the ballot initiative process,” and that thoughtful legislation out of the council, informed by the testimonies, would be more effective. And Mary Cheh, councilmember for Ward 3, proposed a compromise bill, potentially slowing the phase-in time to 15 years instead of eight.
It seemed that the majority of speakers, too, were anti-77. Valerie Torres, a bartender, says tips helped her get through graduate school, teach young children, and live in the District; Ryan Aston, another bartender, says his job would be secure if the initiative was upheld, but his lower-earning and less-educated barbacks and bussers would be fired; Jackie Greenbaum, who co-owns three D.C. restaurants, estimated that she’d have to lay off 30 percent of her 100 employee staff. “The starry-eyed idea that we can just raise prices or add service charges is a fantasy,” she said, according to the Washington City Paper’s live blog.
Erica Christian pushed back on the claim that support for 77 is divided across racial lines. “I am black. I am a woman. I’m queer. I’m a tipped employee,” she said, according to WCP. “Initiative 77 has nothing to do with helping black people flourish in this industry. This industry has done nothing but uplift me.” Others insisted that solving sexual harassment starts with a cultural shift, not a wage increase.
Those who spoke up in favor of 77 said that the measure would reinforce the professionalism of tipped work: Sophie Miyoshi said that in an “informal work environment” like a restaurant, there’s “a lot of room for biases and discrimination”—both on the part of the tippers and of the bosses, who have the power to put servers on slow shifts. Ericka Taylor, the council liaison for One Fair Wage, cited studies showing that people of color and women are often tipped less than their white male counterparts.
The smaller pro-77 turnout does not necessarily reflect weaker support, however. “I think servers in our city who are receiving the tip directly from the customer are not the people who are most vulnerable to not getting paid properly,” said Elissa Silverman, an at-large member of the council. “I think it is the folks who are reliant on tips but that don’t receive tips directly—people of color, people who don’t speak English as their native language, people who are afraid of this crazy man in the White House.” Only a few employees who receive indirect tips spoke, one of whom didn’t take the stand until 2 a.m.
That reticence to speak could have been driven by fear of job loss or retaliation, several witnesses said. “There’s been a lot of conversation as to why more tipped workers aren’t speaking out,” said Thea Bryan, an ROC member and longtime bartender in the city. That’s due to harassment and threats, she says, which she’s experienced in spades. “I’ve felt the wrath … Fear-mongering about the loss of livelihood has encouraged people to engage in vitriolic rhetoric.”
Pearl Hood, another D.C. restaurant worker, says she and others were pressured to vote no on 77. “I know of an industry colleague who was fired from her position in Southwest because she wouldn’t solicit customers to vote no,” she said in her testimony. “I believe 77 may lower the ceiling but raise the floor.”
The Economic Policy Institute’s study on One Fair Wage cities was questioned by many anti-77 speakers, but David Cooper, who wrote the paper, testified to reiterate his findings: Seattle tipped workers make 7 percent more in median hourly wages than those in D.C. and San Francisco tipped workers make 21 percent more. The study also complicates the assertion that jobs will be lost—in both Seattle and San Francisco, “tipped workers make up a larger share of the overall workforce” than in D.C. Still, opponents insisted that D.C. is unique, with fewer chains and more locally-owned restaurants than other cities; and that comparing it with other One Fair Wage cities is unhelpful.
By the end of the night, only three councilmembers remained, listening. No decision on the repeal was reached—and likely won’t be until a vote early October—but with seven councilmembers in favor of the bill, “it’s highly likely it will be passed,” said Charles Allen, councilman for Ward 6. “There’s not much value in pretending otherwise.” In a private meeting with anti-77 restaurant workers, Mendelson said that if he secures nine votes by the council’s October 2 meeting, he “plans to push emergency legislation to immediately kill the wage hike,” according to the Washington Post.
If the legislation to repeal is going to move forward, it’s important to establish concrete steps that protect employees from wage theft, Allen says. It’s not clear what those steps would be.