Celinda Lake: Council should think twice about overturning voters on Initiative 77
In June DC voters passed Initiative 77, a measure that would gradually raise tipped workers’ hourly base pay to the full minimum wage, with 56 percent of the vote — a nearly 11.5 percent margin of victory. The initiative passed in seven of the city’s eight wards, with especially strong support in working-class and African-American neighborhoods. It lost by fewer than 200 votes in affluent Ward 3, where DC Council member Mary Cheh supports it. DC is set to join seven other states — including cities with thriving restaurant scenes, like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle — in fairly compensating its service-industry workers.
Across districts and neighborhoods, the people have spoken. Now the council is telling us that our voices don’t matter. Seven members of the DC Council recently introduced a bill to overturn this popular pro-worker initiative. Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans, who is leading the push to repeal, likes to cite low voter turnout as a compelling reason to defy the will of the people. But Initiative 77 received thousands more votes than Evans did in his race for national committeeman and Anita Bonds in her race for re-election as an at-large member. In fact, nearly as many people voted for the initiative as for Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. Our city’s elected officials cannot plausibly question turnout in the very races that elected them. What’s more, it certainly won’t inspire people to show up to the polls in greater numbers if local elected officials make clear that they don’t respect their votes.
My own polling on behalf of One Fair Wage DC shows that Initiative 77 enjoys broad support throughout the city. DC Council members should note that voters overwhelmingly — 82 percent — said they would be concerned if the initiative passed and the council moved to overturn it. In the poll, 55 percent of voters — and over two-thirds of black voters — said they would be very concerned if the council overturned the will of the people. My polling in other states where legislators have sought to overturn initiatives clearly indicates that voters remember and deeply resent being told by politicians that they know better.
Here in DC, the restaurant industry spent hundreds of thousands to defeat Initiative 77 and has contributed generously to local politicians. It frequently manipulated the facts and has misled wait staff, bartenders and the dining public. Restaurants claimed (and in some cases, pressured or intimidated workers into claiming) that the measure would harm servers and jeopardize DC’s flourishing restaurant scene by driving some establishments out of business. The truth is that states with One Fair Wage — where tipped workers make the full minimum wage plus tips — have seen higher restaurant sales per capita, the same or faster growth rates for independent restaurants, higher restaurant-industry job growth, and the same or higher rates of tipping as in DC and the rest of the country. In San Francisco, where workers earn the same minimum wage, regardless of tips, tipped workers actually make more in tips than their counterparts in DC.
Without Initiative 77, restaurants and other businesses like parking garages and nail salons who employ tipped workers will continue to pay the base rate of $3.89 per hour, counting on tips to make up the difference between that and the minimum wage. In theory, all workers, including those who receive tips, receive at least the minimum wage. But thanks to lax enforcement, the reality is that many businesses fail to meet this requirement. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 84 percent of restaurants investigated nationally by the U.S. Department of Labor between 2010 and 2012 were found to be in violation of wage and hour laws. Nearly 1,200 of those violations were related to the requirement that tipped workers’ wages be supplemented if they didn’t meet the minimum wage, resulting in nearly $5.5 million in lost wages.
Most tipped workers in DC are immigrants, 66 percent are people of color and 53 percent are women. Many barely earn enough to survive and are nearly twice as likely as all city workers to experience poverty. Workers who make the sub-minimum wage and must rely on customers and employers to make up the difference are far more vulnerable to sexual harassment than workers who earn the minimum wage plus tips. Initiative 77 is a crucial step toward ensuring that no hardworking person has to live in poverty, and that no one with an abusive customer or boss has to stay in a job to survive.
Preserving Initiative 77 is about standing up for workers. It’s also about safeguarding our democracy. This summer, nearly 50,000 DC residents voted to give service industry workers a desperately needed raise.
DC voters don’t like being trampled on by Republicans in Congress. And as hundreds of angry voters have already made clear in person, in phone calls and on Twitter, they won’t soon forget it if the council does the same. DC Council members should think twice before telling them their votes don’t count.
Celinda Lake is a longtime DC resident and a leading Democratic pollster and strategist. Her firm, Lake Research Partners, conducted a poll for One Fair Wage DC during the campaign for Initiative 77.
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