Break out the champagne.
With the recent introduction of a bill to repeal Initiative 77 — coming from DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Chairman Pro Tempore Kenyan McDuffie and members Jack Evans, Vincent Gray, Anita Bonds, Brandon Todd and Trayon White — the band has already begun practicing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Get ready for the second-line dance.
Even before the controversial wage measure appeared on the June primary ballot, many advocated for its demise, including Mayor Muriel Bowser and Attorney General Karl Racine, along with thousands of tipped workers and business owners who saw an indisputable risk to their livelihoods.
While at-large member David Grosso and Ward 1’s Brianne Nadeau were also among the measure’s opponents, they now seem to have joined the reluctant brigade — those prepared to forget what they have said, eat their words or sit on their hands.
Nadeau said she is “uncomfortable” with the repeal legislation. “My sincere hope is that there is a path forward that addresses the concerns of the tipped employees that will ensure fair wages and will help our tipped industries continue to thrive,” she said.
Even Racine has become a member of the sideline crew. His spokesperson said the AG “will reserve any further public opinion” on the proposed repeal until he can hear more public testimony. Mendelson plans to schedule a hearing on the matter this fall.
“As a former civil rights attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, I have worked to protect the rights of some of our most vulnerable citizens. Given my experience, I do not take any potential legislative action on Initiative 77 lightly,” McDuffie said recently about his support for the repeal bill called the “Tipped Workers Fairness Amendment Act of 2018.”
As written, Initiative 77 promised that tipped workers would see a minimum wage increase to $15 directly from employers by 2026. And, beginning in 2021, the annual increase would be pursuant to the Consumer Price Index.
Remember, though, that DC law already entitles tipped workers to the current minimum wage, which as of July 1 is $13.25. The employer must make up the difference if, in total, a worker’s base pay and the tips for any given week do not reach the minimum-wage income. Further, existing law requires that tipped workers receive a minimum wage increase to $15 by 2020 — a full six years before that’s mandated by Initiative 77.
Additionally, Bowser noted, “The vast majority of our tipped workers already make above $15 an hour, and we don’t want to do anything that would decrease their wages or their quality of life in the District.” The mayor said she has not seen the repeal bill but acknowledged “there is certainly a lot of energy around making some changes.”
Mark Lee, a consultant for NO2DC77, one of the groups representing tipped workers that has helped generate that interest around the repeal, said the council’s action has “produced a sign of relief among workers at venues across the District.” (According to government reports, approximately 40 percent of DC servers and 28 percent of DC bartenders live in the city.)
“Maintaining the current wage system that works, and works well for workers, is what tipped employees have been working hard to protect,” said Lee, who is also a columnist with the Washington Blade newspaper and a small-business owner. “They want to preserve their actual and potential earnings, which are well above minimum wage, as well as preserve their jobs, shifts, shift hours and wages,” he said.
While supporters of Initiative Initiative 77 are urging the council not to act against the voters’ will, Mendelson correctly notes the phrasing on the ballot was “misleading.” Nearly 56 percent of the 84,768 individuals who cast ballots voted yes for the measure and 44 percent voted no. Mendelson said, however, that those results may demonstrate some confusion about the issue. Consider that every incumbent on the ballot opposed the measure, “yet won their primary,” the chairman continued. “So, it is not a surprise that a bill would come forth.”
While the law may mandate a public hearing, it would be such a waste. It would simply rehash previous arguments made when the city approved the initial minimum wage legislation two years ago. Then, there was a push to include tipped workers; the council decided against it. The reason for that decision hasn’t changed.
Instead of hitting the replay button, elected officials would do better to focus on strengthening enforcement of the existing law.
“Not everyone understands that there is only one minimum wage in the District and that everyone, including tipped workers, are guaranteed to earn it,” Lee said. “The local hospitality community has long advocated for wage-payment reporting and enforcement of wage laws.”
McDuffie acknowledged that additional enforcement is required. “There are issues that need to be addressed such as wage theft, harassment, and discrimination. However, allowing Initiative 77 to become law in its current form would not result in the equitable outcomes that we must ultimately achieve.”
Despite his reluctance to support the repeal, Racine has ramped up his efforts to stop what he and others call “wage theft.” He recently filed a lawsuit against Turning Natural Café, which sells fruit and vegetable juices, alleging that owner Jerri Evans violated the District’s minimum-wage and sick- and safe-leave laws. Racine also has set up a website through his Housing and Community Justice Section where workers may file complaints. There’s also a help number at 202-442-9854.
The DC Council could provide more money for a stronger public information campaign around workers’ rights, and then give the AG’s office free reign to clamp down on greedy business owners’ intent on violating local laws. Those actions are far preferable to holding onto a poorly written ballot initiative that is certain to do more harm than good.