Laura Hayes
Laura Hayes

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It feels like like two-minute warning in football as individuals on each side of the contentious tipped minimum wage debate take their final time-outs to urge legislators to vote yes or no on the bill repealing Initiative 77 on Tuesday. This morning Mayor Muriel Bowser, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and Councilmember Jack Evans joined a roundtable with tipped workers at Duke’s Grocery.

The Dupont Circle eatery wasn’t neutral ground—partner Daniel Kramer was one of signatories on this letter against 77. All of the participating tipped workers were against Initiative 77 and support its full repeal. The employees were from Tail Up Goat, Rose’s Luxury, Duke’s Grocery, Hank’s on the Hill, and Estadio. The roundtable was held privately, but workers and legislators were available for questions afterwards.

Erica Christian from Tail Up Goat, who participated in the roundtable, called the proceedings a “very casual conversation.” She told the crowd afterwards, “There’s this misunderstanding about how we make our money and a misunderstanding about what will happen to small businesses here.” She continued, “In D.C. 96 percent of restaurants are locally owned small businesses. You cannot sustain as a business raising the base wage from close to $4 to $15.”

Mendelson, Bowser, and Evans haven’t wavered on their opinion of 77. They were against it when voters went to the polls in June and they’re against it now. 

“I have consistently stood up and spoke for D.C. workers who do not want to see their wages decreased and that’s exactly what will happen if Initiative 77 goes into effect,” Bowser says. “What the Council heard in hours and hours and hours of testimony is that Initiative 77 would do exactly that—decrease the wages of thousands of workers across the District of Columbia.” 

She’s referring to the 16-hour hearing on the repeal bill held on Sept. 17. Only three councilmembers saw it through to the end: Mendelson, Elissa Silverman, and Anita Bonds. Mendelson said today that he believes two-thirds of those who testified supported the full repeal. 

In her remarks today, Bowser emphasized the hospitality industry’s overall importance in the District. “Restaurants are key to our city’s success,” she says. “I urge the council to ensure and continue the economic vitality of our restaurant in our city as a whole. The chairman has been very careful and thoughtful about his approach to make sure we look at every piece of legislation, whether the Council passes it or whether it comes through an initiative, to make sure it does no harm to the District and it supports our industries and our city as a whole.” 

Mendelson added that neither he nor any other councilmembers are “gleeful” about overturning Initiative 77. District voters passed the ballot measure 56 percent  to 44 percent back in June. “What I see over and over are workers who are fearful that this will become law and their jobs will be hurt their wages will be reduced,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything like this.” 

If it feels like a rush job to vote so soon, the reason is simple. Initiative 77, which eliminates the tipped minimum wage in eight increments until there is no longer a two-tier wage system, is set to take effect Oct. 9. The tipped minimum wage would jump from $3.89 to $4.50 on that date. Mendelson is pushing the repeal bill through as emergency legislation to beat the clock, but that means he needs nine “yes” votes instead of seven. The Council is voting on an outright repeal, instead of a compromise measure, which Councilmember Mary M. Cheh has said she prefers.  

The roundtable capped a week of impassioned last-ditch efforts on both sides. Those who voted for 77 and are against its repeal were at the Wilson Building on Thursday. Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler of the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ and other members of the clergy held a “pray-in” in Mendelson’s office. Earlier today, those against 77 delivered 8,800 printed emails to the Wilson Building, asking councilmembers for a full repeal.