Fight Over D.C. Tipped Wage ballot Initiative Ramps Up

By Oliver Ward

Image Credit: Street Lab

Campaigners aiming to raise the Washington D.C. tipped wage and bring pay for tipped workers, like waiters, hairdressers, and bartenders, up to the same legal minimum wage as nontipped workers launched their doorstep canvassing campaign on Saturday.

District voters will decide the issue when Initiative 82, which would gradually increase tipped worker wages from $5.35 an hour to more than$15 an hour by 2027, appears on their midterm election ballots on Nov. 8. It is the second time voters have been consulted. Voters endorsed an identical initiative in 2018, but the D.C. Council later overturned the measure.

Campaign organizer Aparna Raj of Metro D.C.’s Democratic Socialists assembled a group of around 15 volunteers in Columbia Heights on Saturday afternoon to rally local support for the ‘vote yes’ campaign.

“A lot of restaurant workers during COVID didn’t get unemployment [pay] or didn’t get the full unemployment,” Raj said. Securing a higher minimum wage would “create a safety net” for many workers still struggling to get back on their feet.

“It would mean a lot more money,” said Pasha Fesenko, a tipped wage worker in a Northwest Washington bar. Fesenko currently works two jobs, but said a higher basic wage might let him “have two-day weekends instead of one.”

Not everyone in the service industry is supportive of the initiative. Nico Smith, a manager at a busy Columbia Heights bar who has previously earned the tipped minimum wage, worried higher wages could cause job losses.

(Image Credit: Flickr/MTSOFan)

“It would cause prices to go up a lot,” he said, which might cause people to eat out less and trigger layoffs in the food and beverage sector.

Maya Lalouani, manager at a Mexican restaurant in Northwest Washington, shared his concerns and thought owners would reduce staff sizes to trim overheads.

“Instead of having a bar back, a food runner, and a busser,” she said, restaurants would have a single person undertaking all three roles with “triple the work.”

Neither manager was sure a yes vote would leave workers better off. Both thought that customers would reduce the size of their tips if they knew service staff were earning a higher wage. This, they reasoned, would leave servers with a lighter pay packet.

“I make money based on $30 an hour, $50 an hour some days, because of tips,” Lalouani said. She believed she would take a hit if Initiative 82 became law. “It would probably make me not want to work in the restaurant industry.”

“Restaurant owners, who last time around were some of the ones to oppose it the strongest, are now implementing it themselves, I think is just indicative of how much the pandemic has shifted people’s views about the service industry,”

-Aparna Raj, Campaign Organizer

Metro D.C. Democratic Socialist campaigners are planning to canvas every weekend between now and election day on November 8. The D.C. Committee to Build a Better Restaurant Industry has also been hosting “poster parties” to cover the District in ‘vote yes’ posters.

During the 2018 campaign, businesses posted signs on doors of local restaurants and bars urging residents to vote no, and employees wore buttons reading “Save Our Tips.” Campaigners anticipate similar strategies this time around.

The pandemic may have softened business attitudes, however. Some restaurants have started paying workers the traditional minimum wage, or higher, since the pandemic, with a handful introducing a “living wage fee” to customer bills to fund the wage increases.

“The fact that restaurant owners, who last time around were some of the ones to oppose it the strongest, are now implementing it themselves, I think is just indicative of how much the pandemic has shifted people’s views about the service industry,” said Raj.

President Biden also drew attention to the issue in October 2021 when he tightened rules around the tipped wage minimum.

If the initiative receives majority public support, it will go to Congress for a 30-day review. The D.C. Council could also introduce legislation to overturn the measure.  

Raj, however, is convinced there will not be a repeat of 2018. Three of the seven council members that voted to repeal the initiative in 2018 have been replaced by candidates openly supportive of the initiative—including Brandon Todd, whose Ward 4 opponent made his vote to overturn the tipped wage initiative a key issue of the campaign.

“We are confident that we not only have a majority of yes votes now,” she said, “but also the people who overturned it last time around know that they overturned the will of the voters… It’s not going to fly again.”

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