On the D.C. Council’s Repeal of Initiative 77

The Council of the District of Columbia has just voted 8 to 5 to repeal initiative 77, a ballot measure that passed in June with support from 55 percent of D.C. voters. Initiative 77 would have incrementally raised the tipped minimum wage to $15 by 2025 and thereafter required employers to pay the full minimum wage to tipped workers in all industries, lifting wages for approximately 16,000 workers whom employers currently are allowed to pay as little as $3.89 an hour. Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), issued the following statement in response:

“It is extremely disappointing that the D.C. Council, led by Chairman Mendelson, has chosen to override the will of the people and repeal a popular piece of legislation that would have improved the lives of thousands of workers in the District of Columbia. Right now, D.C. has the largest gap between the tipped minimum wage and full minimum wage of anywhere in the country—a shocking $9.36—forcing tipped workers to depend on the literal kindness of strangers to pay for the soaring cost of living in the region.

“It’s important to note that Initiative 77 was not just a vote for a raise for tipped workers—it was also a vote for equality and a vote to dismantle the two-tier wage system in all industries. Today, tipped workers in D.C. experience poverty at more than three times the rate of non-tipped workers. For Black tipped workers, that figure is more than four fold. The pressure to please clients also means that restaurant workers in particular experience high rates of sexual harassment. In all but one of the city’s wards, majorities of voters supported equal treatment for workers in restaurants, nail salons, car washes, and other service-oriented businesses.

“To be sure, raising the tipped wage would increase labor costs on some businesses—and the restaurant industry may argue that restaurants cannot survive if they pay tipped workers the full minimum wage. But study after study has shown that in cities that have adopted $15 and that are located in One Fair Wage states, like Seattle and San Francisco, businesses not only are successfully adapting but are thriving and growing along with the rest of the restaurant industry. Restaurants in D.C., which are among the most profitable in the country, can also afford to pay their workers enough so that they can live with dignity.

“The D.C. Council’s repeal of Initiative 77 is a historic low point for democracy in the District of Columbia. And it cannot be argued that voters did not know what they were voting on. The debate leading up to Initiative 77 was one of the most vigorous public campaigns ever waged in the District’s history. In Wards 7 and 8 alone, two of the poorest wards in the city, voters approved the Initiative with 62 and 67 percent of the vote, respectively—and yet their councilpersons voted to repeal it. Both voters and working people in tipped industries deserve more respect.

“The Council should listen to its constituents and consider reversing course. There is still time for councilmembers to show that they are leaders in respecting the right of all working people to live and thrive in the District of Columbia.”

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The National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting low-wage and unemployed workers. For more about NELP, visit www.nelp.org.


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