Stephanie Rudig

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Tomorrow you go to the polls.

In addition to voting on primary races, you will be asked to weigh in on a referendum called Initiative 77 that seeks to eliminate the tip credit in D.C. 

The tip credit allows restaurant operators to pay tipped workers like servers, bartenders, and bussers a lower base wage of at least $3.33 an hour, asking customers to pay most of workers’ wages with tips. If tips do not carry a tipped worker over the standard minimum wage, which is currently set at $12.50 and scheduled to reach $15 in 2020, the employer is obligated to make up the difference. If voters pass Initiative 77, the tipped minimum wage will go up in eight increments until it reaches $15 in 2025. 

Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC), a national organization with a D.C. office, collected enough signatures to get 77 on the ballot. ROC leaders want to elevate a sector of workers they say earn poverty wages, adding that tipping and a two-tier wage system disadvantages women and people of color and is a prime cause of sexual harassment. Opponents call 77 “a solution in search of a problem” that could devastate an industry that already operates on thin profit margins. 

The battle between 77 proponents and opponents has been highly emotional, as both sides think there is either a lot to gain or a lot to lose from it passing. City Paper has been covering 77 as it has unfolded over the past three months. You can catch up on our print coverage herehere, and here. We also held a panel at Black Cat that’s available on Washington City Podcast.

Expect to see both sides at polling places tomorrow, hoping to sway your vote.

Three hundred tipped workers have signed up to be at polling places across town tomorrow to ask voters to vote no on 77, according to the Save Our Tips campaign, which is largely funded by the National Restaurant Association and Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.

Sheena Wills, a bartender at DC9, is working a morning shift. “I honestly believe that Initiative 77 would have a devastating effect on the small neighborhood bars and restaurants in D.C.,” she says. “There are ways to improve the nightlife industry, but I truly feel that 77 would do more harm than good. It’s like burning down the entire house instead of putting in the time and effort to make repairs.” Like many of her peers, Wills feels that passing 77 would lead to a reduction in her take-home pay. 

The 300 tipped workers come from about 200 bars and restaurants, also according to the Save Our Tips campaign. They include Ben’s Chili Bowl, All Soul’s Bar, Cleveland Park Bar & Grill, Jackie Lee’s, Jaleo, Kitty O’Sheas, Lebanese Taverna, Pizzeria Paradiso, Purple Patch, Sally’s Middle Name, Taco Bamba, The Ugly Mug, Solly’s, and The Salt Line

Matt Demma, a server at Whaley’s, will be out there. “The greatest asset we have as a restaurant community is putting a face to the cause,” he says. “Volunteering tomorrow at the polling station will continue to help that fight. As long as we can continue to educate the voters about the perspective from within the industry, those being affected by this policy, we have a good chance at defeating the bill.”

Part of the opposition’s grumbling comes from the way 77 is worded. Bullet points one and three on the ballot were already signed into law in June 2016. The first talks about raising the standard minimum wage to $15 by 2020. That’s already happening. Same goes for the third bullet point about the standard minimum wage being tied to the Consumer Price Index starting in 2021. A “Yes” vote on 77 only means that you support raising the tipped minimum wage incrementally from $3.33 to $15 by 2025. 

A spokesperson for the One Fair Wage campaign, which is funded primarily by ROC, says volunteers will be passing out flyers and speaking with voters at “top polling sites in every ward across the city.”

“One Fair Wage DC will have 35 to 40 volunteers at the polls tomorrow,” the spokesperson says. “Other groups supporting 77 are likely to join the effort.”

Sam Peters cannot volunteer at a polling place tomorrow, but the bartender from Betsy and Belga Café mostly supports 77. “If I’m torn between giving myself a raise and not giving myself a raise, I should give myself a raise,” he says.

When asked what he would tell voters before they head in to vote, Peters says, “If you’re undecided, the right thing to do for any community is to give them more money. I think it will force this business to evolve to have better business practices.”