Phil Mendelson
Phil Mendelson Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The District’s top two elected officials are coming out against a hotly contested ballot initiative scheduled for next month that would incrementally raise the tipped minimum wage for restaurant workers until it equals the general minimum wage in 2026.

Critics of the referendum, including many D.C. restaurant owners and servers, worry that if Initiative 77 passes, it would radically alter the restaurant industry and lead to increased prices, lost businesses and jobs, and possibly the elimination of tipping. Supporters say tipped workers should not be treated differently than other workers and should have more predictable take-home pay. They also argue that the initiative would reduce harassment and bias against women and people of color at restaurants and bars.

Last Friday, Mayor Muriel Bowser threw her clout behind the opponents of the referendum, telling City Paper contributor Tom Sherwood and WAMU host Kojo Nnamdi on The Politics Hour that she was against it. “I think if people vote for it, they would be voting for decreasing the pay of the thousands of servers who are making a living, and a good living, in D.C. right now,” Bowser said. “We have hundreds of new restaurants that have opened across all eight wards, we have record visitation in our city, conferences coming to our city.

“They are all going to restaurants, and they are all spending a lot of money there and leaving great tips,” the mayor added. “And I think what’s on the table would dramatically reduce the earnings of our servers. But you don’t have to listen to me, you listen to them, and they’ll tell you, the servers across the city, they are not interested in Initiative 77.”

A spokesperson for D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson says he also opposes the referendum. But “he has not indicated what would or could be done should the measure pass and he will not speculate on such,” she notes in an email. If it passes, the bill would have to survive the typical 30-day congressional review period that D.C. legislation goes through. Seven states, including California, Minnesota, and Washington, have a single minimum wage, but the District’s neighboring jurisdictions, Maryland and Virginia, have two-tiered systems.

Although Bowser is unopposed by any viable candidate in the June Democratic primary, Mendelson faces a notable challenger from the left, longtime policy advocate Ed Lazere, who supports the initiative. In an interview with City Paper last Friday, Lazere said tipped workers should be brought into parity with other workers and that the restaurant industry could likely absorb the expected increases in labor costs. Distinguishing between “high-end” and “low-end” restaurants, he said the status quo does not equally benefit all servers. Lazere also cited the debate over whether smoking should be banned in D.C. restaurants and bars—a measure that passed in 2006—despite concerns from some businesses.

Last month, Lazere, who is on leave as the executive director of the left-leaning DC Fiscal Policy Institute, commissioned a poll of likely Democratic primary voters. Among other questions, the poll asked whether respondents supported or opposed “raising their base minimum wage so that they earn the same minimum wage as every other minimum wage worker,” after they were prompted with the sentence: “Tipped workers currently earn a sub-minimum wage of just $3.33 before tips instead of the full minimum wage, currently $12.50.”

Seventy percent of respondents said they supported this, 15 percent said they opposed it, and 15 percent said they were unsure.

The measure will appear on the June 19 primary election ballot and all registered D.C. voters are eligible to vote on it. Under current law, restaurants are required to make up the difference between the tipped minimum wage and the general minimum wage if the addition of tips to a server’s wage does not meet the general minimum wage. Both minimum wages are already set to rise—the tipped minimum wage to $5 an hour and the general minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2020.

Update, May 16: At a town hall against Initiative 77 on Wednesday, a majority of the Council expressed opposition to the measure, according to NO2DC77, an initiative committee launched by John Guggenmos, who co-owns a handful of gay bars in the District. The councilmembers were Ward 1’s Brianne Nadeau, Ward 2’s Jack Evans, Ward 4’s Brandon Todd, Ward 5’s Kenyan McDuffie, and At-Large Councilmembers Anita Bonds and David Grosso. Mendelson also attended.