jonetta rose barras: Politics of tips — kudos to the DC Council

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It’s not often that I praise the DC Council collectively. However, the decision by the majority of legislators to approve the Tipped Wage Workers Fairness Amendment Act of 2018, essentially beginning the process of repealing Initiative 77, was the right thing to do.

Chairman Phil Mendelson led the charge against the initiative, noting in a report that his Committee of the Whole had “heard the voices of the multitude of tipped workers,” asking the legislature to intervene and repeal the measure. “While some may believe that overturning an initiative is anti-democratic, the committee views the initiative as any other piece of legislation passed by the Council, which [amends] laws all the time,” the committee wrote. “If a law is a bad law, it should be amended or repealed. It does not matter if the law was adopted by Congress, the voters, or the Council.”

Photo by Bruce McNeil

A second vote on the Fairness Act may come later this month, giving final approval to the repeal. However, the council took additional precautions by voting to hold off implementation of Initiative 77 until March 2019. That action, according to a staffer from the Committee of the Whole, will compensate for any changes that may need to be made to the Fairness Amendment Act and any potential delays because of congressional recess or shutdowns. “It’s a safety measure to account for anything that may happen,” said the staffer.

The kudos to the council comes with a caveat: It should have passed a straight repeal bill. Bowing to political pressure from proponents, Mendelson loaded the Fairness Act with redundant worker protections that, according to the chief financial officer’s calculation, could cost $2.6 million over the next four years.

As an example of it-sounds-nice-but-do-we-need-it, the Fairness Act mandates sexual harassment training. In these times, many employers already provide such sessions. Moreover, the DC Human Rights Act of 1977 makes clear that “sexual harassment is a form of sexual discrimination,” and therefore is covered under the law.

Mendelson and other repealers also have mandated the creation of a website that lays out the city’s wage-theft laws. The DC Department of Employment Services already provides such information on its site. Further, the Office of the Attorney General on its homepage identifies “workers’ rights” as a key component of its services.

In a political season, it’s not surprising that council members, many of whom will face voters in November, sought to soften their repeal decision. It may have been asking too much for them to have been more forceful in their opposition.

Initiative 77 was confusing, and its claim of raising the minimum wage for all tipped workers was dubious at best. After all, the city already requires District employers to pay tipped workers the minimum wage, which currently is $13.25. If a tipped worker’s earnings fall short of that amount, by law, the employer must make up the difference.

Proponents of Initiative 77 — most egregiously the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United — deliberately sought to mislead the public. They were abetted by certain reporters and some legislators, including at-large member Elissa Silverman.

Apparently unable to accept the pending defeat of a proposal she hoped would prevent full repeal of the initiative, Silverman displayed emotions on the dais Tuesday that were misplaced and disruptive for an official session of the legislature. She called out the names of audience members, suggesting that somehow they would be irreparably harmed by the repeal legislation, which as a point of fact included many worker protections Silverman had sought.

“For those who are voting [to] repeal, look them in the eye and tell them that their vote doesn’t matter and that they don’t deserve a higher wage,” she told her colleagues, almost shouting.

Though Silverman came off as histrionic, it’s possible her “Look at them” tactic took a cue from the sexual assault victims who successfully commanded the attention of U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake last week. Challenging the Arizona Republican on his potential vote to confirm Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the two confronted the senator in a Capitol Hill elevator, one of them demanding: “Look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happened to me.”

Silverman’s tactic makes the observation of Ward 1 Council member Brianne Nadeau, who also voted against the repeal, all the more notable: “What we have is a polarized community, and it didn’t have to be this way.”

She’s right. The council could have asserted itself more forcefully in the fight by preventing Initiative 77 from even getting on the ballot. Since the majority of members announced their opposition before the June primary, they could have implemented an organized campaign to better inform voters about the falsehoods associated with the measure. They could have outlined the repercussions of the initiative instead of relying on the media, which seemed at times as confused as the general public. Obviously, none of that happened, which is why the legislature found itself facing a lousy law that had to be overturned.

If it hopes to protect District residents in the future from opportunistic national organizations like the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, the council should consider reforms to the initiative process. As I suggested in a previous essay, at the very least voting on such measures should be limited to general elections. Further, there should be an opportunity for proactive intervention by the legislature before an initiative appears on the ballot — not after the fact.

jonetta rose barras is a DC-based freelance writer and host of The Barras Report television show. She can be reached at

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  1. Wendyll says

    Thank you for recognizing the Restaurant Opportunities Center for the sham that it is. DC was lucky to have a majority of astute minds on the council. We’re worried about New York in the hands of Cuomo – especially when ROC’s leader Saru Jayaraman is working hard to be a Hollywood darling (Bill Maher falls for her lies) and he seems to enjoy the bright lights.