In July, about a month after a ballot initiative to gradually raise tipped workers’ minimum wage over an eight-year period won voters’ approval by a 10-point margin, seven D.C. Council members introduced legislation to repeal it, citing opposition from constituents in the restaurant industry who expressed concern about the long-term economic effects.
In fact, upon their recent return from a two-month summer recess, council members faced hundreds of restaurateurs, tipped workers and activists anxious to weigh-in on Initiative 77 and its potential impact on the District’s future.
While they invited varying perspectives on the issue, officials who support the repeal maintain that attracting and keeping sit-down restaurants, commercial spaces and other related amenities in their wards must remain their top priority.
“Despite the boom and abundance of amenities, there are few options in Ward 7,” Council member Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7), a sponsor of the bill that would repeal the Minimum Wage Amendment Act, also known as Initiative 77, said in his opening statement during last Monday’s hearing.
“I’m convinced [Initiative 77] will undermine the future of development in Ward 7 and Ward 8 as well,” Gray continued. “What’s the objective, fact-based rebuttal to people who say this will [push] development into Prince George’s County where those requirements aren’t imposed on people providing opportunity?”
If successful repealed, which D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) told witnesses he believes would be the case, it would count as only the fifth time since the 1980s that the local legislative body overturned a voter-approved ballot initiative.
Council members who support Initiative 77’s repeal cited apprehension among tipped workers who fear caps on their earnings. They also described confusing language on the ballot which they assert misled many voters on June 19 and which also disregarded current D.C. wage laws.
But some witnesses, like Matt Hanson, director of DC Working Families, a progressive political organization focused on decreasing economic inequality, challenged that narrative, demanding that lawmakers respect the electoral process.
“Some tipped workers do well under the current system but it’s about raising the floor for all workers,” Hanson said in his testimony, during which he cited tipped wage increases in San Francisco.
“As long as we have a reasonable phase-in, everyone will come out on top,” he added. “I think customers would be happy to pay more for workers to receive better wages. I ask that you respect the rule of voters, so we can get to one economy.”
However, during what amounted to more than an entire work day of testimonies, a considerable number of witnesses railed against Initiative 77, at times questioning the involvement of national advocacy organization Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United in this recent attempt to change wage laws.
“This initiative doesn’t promote a pay raise. With a large amount of businesses closing their establishments, there’s no beneficial outcome,” Frank Mills, a tipped wage worker from Ward 1 told council members while pleading for the repeal of Initiative 77.
“All tipped workers don’t disagree, but for a majority of us, this has politicized our entire industry. I appeal to y’all to repeal this legislation. It was led by misleading rhetoric on the ballot. ROC [United]’s agenda is solely winning, which is why there’s no compromise,” Mills said.