Mary Cheh: DC Council should seek middle ground on Initiative 77
District residents are currently debating whether the DC Council should overturn voter approval of Initiative 77, which would raise the wages of tipped workers. The initiative passed by a comfortable margin (56 percent to 44 percent) and would mandate the same minimum wage for tipped workers such as servers, bartenders, bellhops, salon employees and others as is required for all other workers ($15 per hour in 2020).
Although employers must now make up the difference between a worker’s tips and the minimum wage, that is not always done — and, in any event, experience with the “one minimum wage” in seven other jurisdictions shows that wages for the lowest income tipped workers (mostly women) rises overall. The minimum wage thus becomes a reliable base salary, with tips on top, and not a ceiling on income. Opponents of the initiative have said that restaurants cannot bear the extra labor costs, that jobs will be lost, that establishments won’t open here or will move to surrounding jurisdictions, and that servers’ tips will dry up. Although these dire scenarios have not come to pass elsewhere, opponents say DC is somehow unique and experience in other jurisdictions is not a guide.
But now, whether one voted for or against the initiative (I voted in favor), the issue is whether the DC Council should override the vote. Critics of the measure say that voter turnout was too low and the phrasing of the initiative too misleading for it to stand. Others, including some who voted against Initiative 77, say that a council repeal is anti-democratic and disrespectful of the voters, a charge that carries particular sting in the District. But the council has the authority to overturn an initiative and has done so in the past. And there is already a majority of council members who have signed on to a repeal bill. Given this reality, it may seem that the initiative is doomed.
I would like to suggest, however, that we think of the bill — and the process it triggers — as an opportunity for compromise. If the repealer moves, there will have to be a hearing (now scheduled for Sept. 17), a committee markup, two votes by the council, the signature of the mayor, and congressional acquiescence. It does not have to be a “yes” or “no”: There is an opportunity to reach a middle ground.
The goals of the initiative and the concerns of the restaurant industry can both be addressed if the period of implementation for “one wage” is stretched over a longer period of time — namely, 15 years. If that were done, the objectives of the initiative could be met and any burden on restaurants would be manifestly manageable. Consider, for example, moving a $5 minimum wage to a $15 minimum wage over 15 years; that would translate to an hourly increase of only 66 cents an hour each year. The long implementation would also give lawmakers the opportunity to respond to any negative or unintended consequences. And, in the interim, there would similarly be opportunities to improve conditions for workers. Restaurant owners with whom I’ve spoken have expressed a willingness to increase benefits packages for very-low-wage tipped workers.
I think there is or can be agreement around two essential points: Wages of very-low-wage tipped workers — again, mostly women — should rise, and the restaurant industry should remain vibrant. If we go forward with the repeal bill (and by all accounts the votes are there to do just that), the legislative process — which includes the power of amendment — gives us a chance to find a reasonable alternative to simply “yes” or “no.” We can address the concerns of the business community and respect the will of the voters.
Mary M. Cheh represents Ward 3 on the DC Council.
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