Darrow Montgomery/File
Darrow Montgomery/File

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As voting day approaches, the battle over ballot Initiative 77 only intensifies, and several voter questions remain unanswered. The measure seeks to eliminate the tip credit, or tipped minimum wage, in the District.  

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. 

Proponents want to elevate a sector of workers they say earn poverty wages, adding that tipping and a two-tier wage system disadvantage women and people of color. Opponents call 77 “a solution in search of a problem” that could devastate the District’s unique restaurant industry. 

City Paper held a panel discussion on Initiative 77 on May 29 at Black Cat. Many questions from the audience at City Paper’s public forum went unanswered due to time constraints. The same goes for questions from the moderators. Last week and this week, we’re addressing them. 

Is the opposition to 77 truly the majority of workers, or are they just the loudest because they work at popular restaurants, are proficient at social media, and speak English? Is there a significant group of workers that we’re not hearing from that support it? 

The honest answer is that we don’t know. City Paper has focused its reporting on speaking with tipped workers in interviews and in the community. They know the job and the city. They’re also the most likely to be helped or hurt by 77. We’ve canvassed neighborhoods, teamed up with Latinx organizations, and closely monitored restaurant worker groups on social media. But even this strategy hasn’t lead to a concrete yes or no on this question. 

Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC), the New York-based organization that got 77 on the ballot, hasn’t produced myriad tipped workers voicing their support. Diana Ramirez, the director of the D.C. chapter of ROC says that it has 1,200 local members. Yet City Paper’s requests for fresh perspectives from both ROC and the One Fair Wage campaign turn up the same handful of names. 

That doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. Tipped workers who support 77 have largely been reluctant to disclose employment information, citing fears of retaliation by their employers or by the opposition. They may not speak up for the same reasons. Supporters of 77 may also be media shy or hesitant to come forward because of language barriers or immigration status. They’re up against tipped workers who have owners on their side, and interplay between the two groups on the street and on social media is sometimes tense, and at other times vicious.

Still, Michael Richmond, the general manager at Rose’s Luxury, doesn’t think there’s a silent majority of workers who aren’t being heard. “If there was this large group of extremely disenfranchised workers, ROC would find them,” he says. “It would be their job to find them.” 

“They’ve recycled all of their people at panels,” Richmond continues, pointing specifically to ROC members Trupti Patel and Thea Bryan (who also goes by Thea Brooks). Several attendees asked if the ROC members on stage at the panel received compensation for appearing. They didn’t, according to Ramirez.

To date, Florida Avenue Grill is the only restaurant in D.C. to voice support for 77. It hosted a pro-77 brunch in May. Its owner, Imar Hutchins, is listed as a member of the board of directors on ROC’s website and the D.C. chapter of ROC is headquartered on the second floor of the restaurant. 

Richmond believes that if ROC’s goal is genuinely to uplift a group of marginalized workers, there’s a better way to do it than passing 77. “They could be a liaison between poor actors and good actors,” he says. By “poor actors,” Richmond’s referring to restaurants that don’t obey the law, which stipulates that employers must cover the gap if workers’ tips don’t carry them over $12.50 an hour. “There are hundreds of restaurants hiring,” Richmond continues. “I would love to get a feed of quality people that do good work and take them away from poor operators.” 

Much of the District’s large Salvadoran population works in restaurants. To get a better sense of how D.C.’s Spanish-speaking communities feel about the initiative, City Paper reached out to local Latinx community organizations. A city employee connected with training programs for immigrants in the District convened five tipped workers. She asked to be anonymous because she obtained their perspectives on her own, not in the name of her employer. 

“They’re all against it because they make more than minimum wage,” she explains, admitting she was surprised by their responses. “They said if they were going to raise the minimum wage, it would need to be more than $15 an hour. They prefer tips.” She says that one told her there are days they don’t make minimum wage, but other days they make way more so it balances out. “Everyone I’ve talked to so far is against it.” 

City Paper also teamed up with El Tiempo Latino’s executive editor Rafael Ulloa, visiting restaurants and speaking with Latinx workers and owners during Taste of Adams Morgan. Betty Reyes owns El Tamarindo—a Mexican and Salvadoran restaurant established in 1982. “I’m in total disagreement with 77,” she says, translated into English. “It’s not a good thing for us owners nor for the servers who make tips. They make much more than $15 an hour so, no, I don’t agree. Nobody in the restaurant agrees.” She convened a meeting with other restaurants to strategize on how to beat 77.

Miguel Castro from Many Languages One Voice supports 77, and has a different take. His organization works to empower limited and non-English proficient communities to access public benefits in the District. 

“I have talked to Latino restaurants, many don’t know about Initiative 77,” he says, adding that in some cases opponents of 77 have come by to drop off “vote no” signs and sway opinion. Those Castro encountered who already knew about 77 said they didn’t want it to pass, but he’s worried they’re making decisions without all of the information. 

While Castro used to work in a restaurant, earning $11 an hour plus tips, he believes others aren’t as fortunate. A former pizza delivery driver he spoke with was only paid a base wage of $3 to $5 plus tips, which often didn’t add up to minimum wage.

Are workers being forced to take a stand against 77 by their employers? 

Some supporters of 77 assert that restaurant operators and trade groups are scaring or otherwise pressuring tipped workers to take a stand against 77. 

Newly released campaign finance reports demonstrate how high stakes the battle over 77 is for restaurant operators and trade groups. From April 11 to June 11, the anti-77 “Save Our Tips” campaign received $247,157 (to date they’ve raised $305,707). The National Restaurant Association ($10,000) and Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington ($40,000) made the largest donations. The rest came from restaurants including Pizzeria Paradiso, Rose’s Luxury, Martin’s Tavern, Acadiana, Right Proper Brewing Company, and The Salt Line

As originally reported by The Intercept, the Save Our Tips campaign spent $11,000 on consulting services with Lincoln Strategy Group, a company that did $600,000 worth of work for the Trump presidential campaign. Nathan Sproul, a Republican political consultant who has been involved in a voter fraud scandal, heads the company.

The Save Our Tips Campaign also paid democratic and progressive-leaning groups for consulting services, as WAMU’s Martin Austermuhle reported on Twitter. New Heights Communications received $80,000 from the campaign between April 11 and June 11. The company is headed by Christy Setzer, who spent much of her career working on democratic campaigns.

On the other side, the pro-77 “One Fair Wage” campaign received $84,146 in contributions during the same time period (to date they’ve raised $269,497). ROC contributed almost $50,000 and other groups like the All Above All Coalition, Mintwood Strategies, and National Network of Abortion Funds gave money.

On the ground in D.C., vocal tipped restaurant workers insist they are making up their own minds based on their lived experiences. 

“That’s absolute hogwash,” says Frederick Uku, who bartends at The Red Hen. “The owners have given us nothing but complete autonomy.” He’s been a tipped employee in D.C. for 15 years and says he’s frustrated with an outside interest group, ROC, which he says has “no knowledge of the D.C. ecosystem and is torpedoing my way of life and the way of life of all of my friends and coworkers.”  

“I do not care for the way they’ve portrayed restaurant owners as big-wig, cash-stealing fat cats—half of my friends own restaurants and bars,” he continues. “I haven’t heard one single incident of a tipped restaurant employee being forced to be a no on 77.”

Uku is confused by ROC’s talking points. “Every time I attend a town hall and try to objectively listen, I end up shaking my head or face-palming,” he says. “If your goal is to make sure disenfranchised restaurant workers get a fair shake, there are myriad things you can do. What you don’t do if you’re trying to cure a cancer patient is burn down the fucking hospital.” Tipped workers who oppose 77 suggest focusing on better wage theft enforcement instead of changing the status quo of the tip credit.

Abby Dunn is a tipped worker who supports 77 and discloses that she works at a restaurant in Northwest D.C. She was quoted in a ROC 2016 report about eliminating the tipped minimum wage in D.C.

“Most people I work with are against the initiative,” she says. The restaurant has signs posted and many of her co-workers wear pins asking voters to vote no, but she hasn’t been forced to join them. “I haven’t had any pressure put on me … no one in management has asked me to wear a button or show my support in any way.”

“While I know people are scared and freaked out about the possibility of losing their tips, evidence hasn’t showed that that’s what happens,” she says. “It’s the fair thing to do for people who are dealing with wage theft.” Dunn thinks most servers and bartenders oppose 77, but says bussers and food runners are “more into the initiative because they’re making less money.” 

Bussers are some of the most vulnerable workers in restaurants according to wage theft attorney Justin Zelikovitz, who was a panelist. “Employers will fudge the numbers most commonly with positions like busboys,” he explains. “They’ll say, ‘He got a bunch of tips and that brought him over minimum wage, but just didn’t report them.’” One former busser City Paper interviewed worked for a large D.C. restaurant and was only paid $2.50 an hour, plus $380 in tips every two weeks. 

Some restaurant owners have convened staff meetings to discuss the initiative, including Gavin Coleman of The Salt Line, Sixth Engine, Town Hall, and The Dubliner. “Most of us try to say what we think the future would bring if 77 passed and went into effect … Then we gave them their options for voicing their opinions.” He decided to hang signs opposing 77, but employees decide whether or not to wear pins. “I’ve run out of pins twice from employees asking me for them.” 

A strong majority of tipped workers City Paper interviewed oppose 77. They largely take offense at the notion that they’re merely pawns, regurgitating what they’ve heard from their owners instead of reading the information and making an autonomous call. 

In Maine, tipped workers mobilized to overturn a ROC referendum after voters passed it. The November 2016 referendum would have gradually raised the tipped minimum wage from $3.75 to $12 in 2024. But in June 2017, the Maine House voted 110 to 37 to restore the tip credit and the governor signed it into law.

The Portland Press Herald reported that servers and bartenders voiced their concerns at a 12-hour hearing on the matter, telling lawmakers “they usually made far more in tips than the $12 per hour promised by the new minimum wage and that patrons generally were tipping less as they were confused by the law change.” 

What were the campaign contributions from the NRA or individual operators to Phil Mendelson? 

Neither the National Restaurant Association nor the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington have given money to Phil Mendelson’s 2018 D.C. Council Chairman Campaign as of June 10, but a number of restaurants have contributed according to the Office of Campaign Finance E-filing site.

They include Silver Diner, Sticky Rice DC, Black Whiskey, Bresca, Colada Shop, Maydan, Ben’s Chili Bowl, Carmine’s, Del Mar, Cork Wine Bar and Market, and KAZ Sushi Bistro. Restaurant operators including Jamie Leeds, Jackie Greenbaum, and Daniel Kramer also gave. 

Mendelson, the incumbent, is running against Ed Lazere. Mendelson opposes 77, calling it “well intentioned but misguided.” 

Councilmembers Brianne K. Nadeau (Ward 1), Jack Evans (Ward 2), Brandon T. Todd (Ward 4), Kenyan R. McDuffie (Ward 5), Charles Allen (Ward 6), Vincent C. Gray (Ward 7), Anita Bonds (At-Large), and Robert C. White (At-Large) oppose Initiative 77. Mary M. Cheh (Ward 3) supports the measure. Trayon White (Ward 8), Elissa Silverman (At-Large), and David Grosso (At-Large) remain undecided.

Silverman believes restaurant workers are still tipped and earn higher wages in the seven states that don’t have a sub-minimum wage. “So the major argument made by the Vote No 77 lobby doesn’t seem to hold true,” she says in a statement. “Hospitality is one of our biggest industries, and these jobs are careers for many. I want to make sure D.C. residents in these jobs earn a good living to afford to live here and get paid properly.”

But she remains undecided because she worries that the phase-out of the tipped minimum wage is too abrupt. “We are asking businesses to absorb an almost $12 per hour increase per employee in labor costs over seven years, and I’m not sure where they can find savings quickly without raising prices or cutting hours.” She would prefer it be phased out in twice the amount of time, “where we stop and look back to see if there are negative impacts on businesses, employment, and the industry.” 

This post will be updated if councilmembers change their position.