On Sept. 17, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson held an open forum on whether the council should move forward with a proposed bill to overturn Initiative 77. Initiative 77, which requires employers to pay their tipped workers the same minimum wage as non-tipped workers, passed with 55 percent of the vote in June during the D.C. primaries. However, a majority of council members have since announced their intention to vote to overturn the measure by early October. Doing so would show that the council has little regard for the will of the city’s voters, and we condemn their efforts to undo Initiative 77.
Currently, the tipped minimum wage in the District is $3.89, while the wage for non-tipped workers is $13.25. Employers are required to pay the difference in wages if workers are not tipped enough to reach the non-tipped minimum wage, but a study from the D.C. Mayor’s office showed that many employers do not.
The merits of Initiative 77 notwithstanding, the D.C. Council should abide by the results of a democratic election and allow the referendum to become law. As one Ward 4 citizen told The Washington Post, “They’re talking about throwing my vote away. That’s honestly how it feels. And everybody, regardless of how they voted, should be upset about that.”
Mendelson told the Post that he was opposed to the initiative becoming law because of the many restaurant workers against it. “The reason why so many restaurant workers are opposed is they see it very much as reducing the quality of their livelihoods,” he said.
What he fails to address is that the most vocal are often privileged in their tipped position and work in the more affluent parts of the District. According to organizers with Restaurant Opportunities Center United, who support the initiative, many tipped workers are unable to speak out against their employers because of immigration concerns or because they may have to work to support themselves and their families instead of pursuing activism.
Before June’s vote even occurred, several council members discredited Initiative 77 by claiming they would overturn it if passed. Seven out of 13 formally opposed it at the time, as well as D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. As early as the morning after the election, council members met with restaurant industry lobbyists to discuss repeal, showing their contempt for the electorate. Individuals and businesses opposed to Initiative 77 gave over $230,000 to local mayoral and city council campaigns this election cycle, which includes $30,000 contributed directly to Mendelson. For the council members to then listen to what the restaurant lobby wants rather than what most D.C. residents chose is irresponsible.
The D.C. Council is familiar with its bills being reversed, only it’s often their actions that are being overturned by Congress—and they hate this practice. After the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform voted to block D.C.’s Death with Dignity Act in February 2017, which would have granted citizens the right to voluntary euthanasia, this editorial board opposed the obstruction from Congress. When Congress blocked the District’s bill, Mendelson accused the body of overriding the wishes of D.C. voters. By overturning Initiative 77, Mendelson would be doing just this.
We believe that the initiative will reduce wage theft and sexual harassment in the service industry. A study from the Economic Policy Institute found that states with a single minimum wage for all workers report lower poverty rates for restaurant staff. The initiative also aims to remove the leverage that customers have over a tipped worker’s earnings, as restaurant workers have reported rates of sexual harassment much higher than those in the overall workforce. And while most of the discussion around the issue focuses on how Initiative 77 would affect the restaurant industry, a minority of the city’s tipped workers are servers or bartenders. Many are bus persons, hairdressers, or valet attendants, to name a few.
We agree with Initiative 77, but this is not the primary concern, as it has already been approved by a majority of District voters. The current issue lies with its impending repeal after its success at the polls. The D.C. Council has a responsibility to its constituents to listen to their vote. We stand with the majority of voters who approved the initiative and found it in their best interest. If the city is going to hold ballot initiatives, it must follow through with the results of those referendums.
Image Credits: Photo credits: ROC United