Credit: Lauren Heneghan

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On Tuesday, the D.C. Council approved for a second and final time legislation that would increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by July 2020, and the tipped minimum wage to $5 an hour by that same month. The bill now goes off to Mayor Muriel Bowser for her likely signature, before heading off to Congress for standard review.

Still, as the local debate over the issue evolved beginning in March—when Bowser said she would propose raising the minimum wage during her annual State of the District Address—it became clear that the tipped minimum wage incited the lion’s share of controversy stemming from the proposal. Businesses that pay their workers in part through gratuities like restaurants lobbied fervently against the mayor’s original bill, which pegged the tipped minimum at $7.50 an hour by a few years into the next decade. (Currently, it is $2.77 an hour in the District, a little more than half a dollar over the federal minimum.) Some advocates on the left pushed for what they called “one, fair wage” that would have phased out the tipped minimum system. A compromise resulted in the bill the Council has just passed.

With that approval, however, comes a commitment by Councilmembers to study the tipped minimum question in depth so that they will be in a better position to evaluate any future wage increases. When the Council voted on first reading to raise the minimum wage a couple weeks ago, At-Large Councilmember David Grosso successfully moved an amendment mandating a study on a “basic-income system” to address affordability in the District. The amendment was stripped from the legislation by Chairman Phil Mendelson on Tuesday with Grosso’s blessing: They said they had internally ordered the D.C. Council’s Office of the Budget Director to examine the issue, rather than through legislation. 

At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman also said she’d commissioned a wage study by the body’s budget office. In remarks echoed by Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, Silverman explained that the public discourse surrounding the debate over raising in the minimum wage in the District was hampered by conflicting or contradictory information.

“I’m not happy where we ended up with the tipped wage,” the at-large councilmember said. “Seven other states don’t have a tipped wage at all…and the restaurant industry seems just fine.” (Those states are primarily on the West Coast.)

It’s not clear when the Council’s budget office will commence and finish these studies, but they’re hoped to be useful the next time D.C. takes up the minimum-wage issue. As approved, the compromise legislation brokered by At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange pegs the general minimum wage to inflation after 2020, while the tipped minimum wage is only capped at $5 an hour that year. Orange said the increase will benefit nearly 15 percent of D.C. workers.