Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Councilmember Elissa Silverman was one of the last three councilmembers standing during the 16-hour hearing on the bill repealing Initiative 77, and now we know why. She’s been working on replacement legislation that offers a compromise instead of a full repeal of the ballot measure that voters passed by 56 percent in June.

Silverman focused her questions during the Sept. 17 hearing on restaurant workers who aren’t tipped directly by patrons, such as busboys, bar backs, and food runners. She found that they’re not paid in a uniform way. Silverman also expressed concern about tipped workers who don’t work in the restaurant industry, such as valet drivers.

The compromise bill Silverman plans to introduce on Tuesday when the Council is scheduled to vote on the repeal splits workers into two categories. It proposes full implementation of Initiative 77 for both indirectly-tipped workers and non-restaurant tipped workers, but over a longer period of time to lessen the blow of increased labor costs for business owners. She places servers and bartenders in a different tier. “We’re still trying to work out what exactly we would do in terms of their wage,” Silverman says. Servers and bartenders have strongly voiced opposition to 77, saying that it would actually reduce their take-home pay. 

“The reason I was focused on indirectly-paid workers is that’s where I think wage theft occurs,” she says, noting also that support staff often tend to be lower-wage earners and workers of color.

Not only does the bill, which is still a work in progress, create two tiers of tipped workers, it also more directly addresses issues that came up again and again during the six months of discussion surrounding Initiative 77—sexual harassment and wage theft. 

In its original form, the ballot measure sought to raise the tipped minimum wage (currently $3.89) in eight increments until it reached the standard minimum wage in 2025. Even though employers are required to make up the difference if tips don’t carry a tipped worker over the standard minimum wage, some argue that this doesn’t always happen. 

Additional facets of the bill, according to Silverman, will likely include:

  • The creation of an anonymous, 24-hour tip line that workers could call to report wage theft
  • Improvement to the tip portal, which restaurants use to report workers’ tips
  • Stipulations that mandate how tipped workers are informed of how tips are distributed at their place of work
  • Other steps to make reporting wage theft easier for workers, including removing the requirement that complaints have to be notarized
  • The creation of an advisory group that can guide the city on future legislation impacting the restaurant industry
  • Mandatory sexual harassment training that the city could potentially help pay for
  • Measures to encourage more restaurants to open in Wards 7 and 8

“It really came out of the discussions that we had last Monday,” Silverman says. “This is something kind of new and nuanced so we’re working the votes … It’s a repeal bill and we want to replace it with this compromise package. That just needs a simple majority. I’m looking for seven and [Council Chairman] Phil Mendelson’s looking for seven. I will tell you that we’re talking to some of the people who did sign on to the initial repeal and they’ve expressed interest in the compromise. I think it’s possible.”

Mendelson, Anita Bonds, Jack Evans, Kenyan McDuffie, Vincent Gray, Brandon Todd, and Trayon White all signed the repeal bill known as the “Tipped Wage Workers Fairness Amendment Act of 2018.” 

Silverman lays out how Tuesday will work. First councilmembers will debate the permanent bill repealing 77. That’s when she’ll offer up the compromise legislation. Later in the session, the councilmembers will vote on the emergency legislation. That’s the point when Mendelson would need nine votes for a full repeal instead of seven.

Councilmember Mary M. Cheh says that she is a definite yes on the compromise bill. She has suggested some sort of compromise for months. She wanted to expand the implementation of 77 from seven years to 15, which she calculated was only a 66-cent raise per tipped employee annually. 

“The point now is to salvage some protection for low-wage workers beyond what we have now,” Cheh says. “It will allow the Council to respect the will of the voters when they voted for this initiative. If we can capture a benefit here, the essence of it, and not simply overturn what the people voted on, I’m interested.”

Cheh says there hasn’t been any major discussion amongst councilmembers about the compromise bill, only brief hallway conversations. “The situation right now is kind of fluid—I’m not sure if we can get to seven.”

She’s being realistic. “If the seven people who signed that measure stick to their guns, they don’t have to compromise,” Cheh continues. She’s hopeful that some of them are feeling the heat from their constituents who want the voters’ decision to be respected. “I think there’s a little hesitancy about an outright repeal. I really like the win-win thing.”

Just today Mayor Muriel Bowser, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and Councilmember Jack Evans held a roundtable discussion with tipped workers who all oppose 77. Silverman called it a “dog and pony show.”

Mendelson couldn’t be reached for comment on the compromise bill. The showdown is set for Tuesday. 

Update 7:10 p.m.: Silverman also names Councilmember Brianne Nadeau as a collaborator on the compromise bill.