This summer, DC voters will likely (again!) vote on whether to eliminate the subminimum wage for tipped workers. On February 22nd, the DC Committee to Build a Better Restaurant Industry submitted 34,000 signatures from DC voters to place Initiative 82 on the ballot for the June 21st primary election in DC.
Initiative 82 would gradually raise the tipped worker minimum wage from $5.05 to the standard minimum wage established by DC law (currently $15.20 per hour), shifting the burden to employers to pay the full minimum wage, with customer tips on top. When workers are paid a subminimum wage, customer tips are supposed to make up the difference between the tipped worker minimum wage of $5.05 and the standard minimum wage of $15.20 per hour. Employers are then supposed to pay the difference if tips do not cover that gap.
The racist, sexist, and ableist history of the subminimum wage for tipped workers is well documented. Forcing employees to rely on tips became prevalent after the Civil War as a means to avoid paying formerly enslaved workers. Tipping encourages racial profiling, fosters sexual harassment, and encourages worker exploitation by increasing the risk of wage theft. Pushing the burden onto employees to ensure their employers are making up the difference between the subminimum wage and the standard minimum wage — particularly given the power differential — is a red flag for potential abuse (which we have seen in DC restaurants like Farmers Restaurant Group).
If this feels like déjà vu, you’re not alone. DC voters considered an almost identical proposal — Initiative 77 — in 2018. Despite the industry’s more than $400,000 campaign to defeat Initiative 77 and the involvement of shadowy outside groups, voters approved the Initiative with 55% of the vote and with the most voter support in wards 5, 7, and 8.
Four months later, unsatisfied with the decision of DC voters, the current Council Chair publicly opposed and led the DC Council in overturning the Initiative. To secure his desired end, the current Council Chair inappropriately influenced the Council vote with threats. According to former At-Large Councilmember David Grosso:
“Mendelson put a lot of pressure on us on this. And it was the one time that I actually gave into his pressure and I regret that,” he says. “He told me he would not remove me from the Committee on Education” as long as Grosso voted with the majority to overturn the [Initiative].
Adding insult to injury, the current Council Chair then failed to fund his proposed alternative measures that he claimed were a better way to address the challenges faced by tipped workers.
DC workers paid the price, as the Covid-19 public health emergency heightened instability for tipped workers. With declining tips and increased harassment, the importance of stable and steady pay is even more apparent.
I was proud to support Initiative 77, and I continue to support eliminating the subminimum wage for all workers. My belief in one fair wage is rooted in my professional experience as an ethics and accountability lawyer focused on workplace misconduct. In that role, I worked to level power disparities in the workplace because evidence and experience teaches us that they enable abuse and exploitation. And the subminimum wage stood out to me as a red flag, both in terms of the power disparity between employer and employee and the power disparity between customer and employee. Raising base pay for tipped workers to be on parity with other industries lessens the power disparity and adds stability. It also means that tipped-worker jobs are more resilient when industries change — like when a restaurant shifts to more carryout orders instead of people dining at the restaurant.
While I support resident-led efforts like initiatives and referendums, they are often a product of government failures. Initiatives involve an extraordinary amount of time and resources, including from the Board of Elections. They are an up or down vote, without the benefit of Council hearings and improvements to the measures proposed. The procedural path toward raising the subminimum wage in DC — here, a resident-led initiative; majority support by voters for that initiative; DC Council repeal of the voter-approved initiative; DC Council failure to fund or pursue alternative measures; and another resident-led initiative — represents a failure of the DC Council to listen to and act in support of resident needs.
These values of honesty, decency, and a legislative process designed to make things better will improve the lives of DC’s working families — not just on this issue, but moving forward.
I believe the DC Council can operate better to make laws that serve residents and support workers. It’s why my DC Council Accountability Plan calls for mechanisms to strengthen the Council, like a comprehensive, nonpartisan, and objective research service to assist the Council in crafting legislative solutions to DC’s challenges, including robust consideration of best practices across jurisdictions. My plan also includes proposals that would prevent the Council Chair from using his power as a bargaining chip for votes — like he did to force the repeal of Initiative 77 — through a neutral Council Committee assignment process.
Ultimately, it seems near certain we will raise the subminimum wage for tipped workers, and I will be proud to vote for Initiative 82. But, there could have been a better way. With stronger leadership, our Council could have found real ways to improve the lives of working people — like restaurant staff, nail salon workers, bellhops, and other DC residents making subminimum wages. The Council also could have collaborated to make wage changes easier for small business owners. Instead, we are back at the ballot box, hoping again that our current Council Chair doesn’t find allegiance with the hard-right House Freedom Caucus to invalidate our votes.
We must be guided by the values that “a day’s work should be met with an honest day’s pay” and not throw workers at the mercy of exploitative bosses and the whims of customers. These values of honesty, decency, and a legislative process designed to make things better will improve the lives of DC’s working families — not just on this issue, but moving forward. There are challenges ahead of us — government-funded workers, like airport workers or government contractors, deserve a good job with a living wage and benefits — but with a thoughtful, committed, open, and fair process, we can take them on together.