National Consumers League

NCL's experiences with Initiative 77, DC's repealed One Fair Wage attempt

Earlier this month, DC City council voted to repeal Initiative 77 in an 8-5 vote. The initiative, which was supported by DC residents by a 55-44% vote, would have eliminated the gap between the “tipped credit” and minimum wage for restaurant workers and ensure that all tipped workers get the minimum wage that other workers are entitled to.

As it stands, tipped workers in Washington DC get a base tipped wage of $3.89 per hour plus tips. If workers don’t get the minimum wage—which is currently $13.25 an hour in DC—employers are supposed to make up the difference. Initiative 77 was intended to shift the burden of ensuring wage equality from consumers to employers, where we believe it actually belongs.

National Consumers League took a personal interest in this issue because of our extensive history with raising the minimum wage over the decades. We testified before the DC City Council in support of Initiative 77 in what was a marathon hearing that started at 11 am and ended at 3 am. In our testimonies, we emphasized the extensive history of the minimum wage laws unfairly carving out tipped workers, while stressing the importance of ensuring that DC’s most vulnerable make an equitable wage. Our testimonies also included the personal experiences of a staff member that has worked in various front-of-house and back-of-house restaurant positions at businesses in Oregon, a one fair wage state, and Georgia, a non-one fair wage state.

Supporters of the Initiative were, by and large, people of color or professionals with extensive experience in labor law or wage policy. The most vocal opponents of the bill were restaurant employees or small restaurant owners in DC’s most affluent neighborhoods. Opponents followed what seemed to be scripted testimony, arguing that Initiative 77 was a bad bill because it came from “outside of DC” or that implementing it would be the first step of a “grand plan” to eliminate tipping.

In our view, the public hearing showed a clear bias for those opposed to Initiative 77. DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson—an avowed opponent—led the hearing. Witnesses in favor of repeal were stacked onto the beginning of the hearing, while key supporters of Initiative 77 spoke much later—well after many of the councilmembers had left. Sadly, the council showed a lack of understanding about Initiative 77 and its potential impact on DC as a whole.

Opponents on the Council also expressed opposition to any type of compromise to Initiative 77. At no point during the hearing, did Chairman Mendelson or Councilmember Jack Evans—also an avowed opponent—suggest that they were open to a compromise or that they were willing to meet with groups to address concerns about the plight of tipped workers in DC. Mendelson went so far as to attack one witness from the Restaurant Opportunities Center’s DC office (ROC-DC) when he called the woman back on the stand and suggested she was a plant used by ROC to gather support for the bill. Despite this, ROC-DC and other advocates appeared more than reasonable, suggesting potential compromises; offering an extended timeline for wage increases, tax cuts, and others. Many of the council members that voted for the repeal—most notably Councilmembers Jack Evans (Ward 2), Phil Mendelson (Chairman), Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5), and Anita Bonds (At-Large)—kept saying that 77 used deceptive language to sway voters. “The language in [Initiative 77] was misleading at best, dishonest at worst,” said Mendelson shortly before the October vote. Why? He didn't say.

Yet the campaign slogan for those opposed to 77 was “Save Our Tips” despite there being no restriction of the tipping practice in the Initiative 77 bill. We believe that voters were not duped and that the bill passed in every ward, besides Ward 3, because DC’s residents wanted to better the lives of tipped workers. As Councilmember Robert White Jr. said in the public hearing, “[we] cannot assume that voters were ignorant after a campaign of fierce campaigning on both sides.”

Nevertheless, the DC Council voted in favor of repealing the bill. In spite of the sensible wage protection policy offered, the repeal of a measure that reflected the will of the people in the District Of Columbia, which is exactly what 77 was. Initiative 77 is another example of hardworking employees losing to big money—the National Restaurant Association spent millions to defeat 77 and when they lost that battle, persuaded the DC Council to overturn it—and ultimately being ignored. Voters showed up and overwhelmingly voted in favor of Initiative 77, yet the council responded by telling voters that their vote doesn't matter and their voice is not important. What a sad day for democracy in our nation’s capital.

Thank you to the  DC City Council members that respected the votes of DC residents and supported the remedying of wage inequality by voting for Initiative 77.

Charles Allen (Ward 6)

Mary M. Cheh (Ward 3)

Brianne K. Nadeau (Ward 1)

Elissa Silverman (At-Large)

Robert White, Jr. (At-Large)