Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The D.C. Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to increase the minimum and tipped minimum wages to $15 and $5 an hour, respectively, by July 2020. The move puts the District in step with New York and California, states which recently signed legislation raising their minimum wages to $15 an hour.

Representatives from local unions and nonprofits said that organizers would drop their support of a ballot initiative to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour for all workers and eventually eliminate the tipped minimum.

Mayor Muriel Bowser was joined at a Tuesday press conference by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Councilmembers Vincent Orange and Jack Evans, labor advocates, and representatives from the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.

“It lives, it breathes, and it will be approved today,” Orange said, adding that the compromise was a “good agreement.”

D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt estimates that raising the minimum wage would directly benefit approximately 127,000 workers, Bowser said, adding that it would put “more money in the hands of our working families.”

The mayor also sought to ease worries that the minimum wage increase would scare new businesses away from D.C. “I get to tell people all over the city and indeed all over the nation that Washington, D.C. is prospering. Our economy is strong and indeed the envy of many cities around the world,” Bowser said.

John Boardman, the executive secretary and treasurer of the Unite Here Local 25 hotel workers union, defended the decision to drop the ballot initiative, saying that settling the minimum wage debate means groups like his can focus on equally important issues such as paid family leave.

“A year ago, this would have been unthinkable,” says Delvone Michael, director of D.C. Working Families, which helped lead the charge for a ballot initiative. “Not only that the Council would vote unanimously to increase the minimum wage, but that the restaurant industry and business community would come along. It’s a testament to the grassroots organizing and hard work [our campaign] did.”

In the lead-up to today’s vote, a number of local businesses and restaurants came out strongly against raising the tipped minimum, arguing that it would hurt their bottom lines as well as employees and customers.

Advocates had been collecting signatures for the ballot initiative, however, and now at least two advocacy groups are upset by what they see as a missed opportunity to level the playing field between tipped and non-tipped workers. Saru Jayaraman, cofounder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, said in a statement that the “deal… is a disgrace” for D.C. Echoing ROC United’s line, Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said in a statement that it “is disappointing that city leadership as progressive and diverse as D.C.’s would not do more” to treat tipped workers equally.

“It could have been worse,” Michael says. “There was support inside the Council for a much lower number. I think everyone’s a bit uneasy. That’s the nature of compromise.” (Mendelson acknowledged the nature of the agreement during today’s session: “It should be clear on the record that [dropping the ballot initiative] is an element in the understanding here.”)

But the extent to which the approved increase helps low-wage workers in D.C. remains to be seen, particularly with the ever-rising cost of living. That notion was not lost upon councilmembers on Tuesday, some of whom, in voting for the minimum wage raise, pointed towards a larger crisis of affordability in the District.

Describing the increase as “political theater,” At-Large Councilmember David Grosso proposed an amendment authorizing a “macroeconomic study” on the “feasibility of a minimum-income system in D.C.” It was approved.

“I am very concerned we are moving too quickly on [this issue],” Grosso said. “Raising the minimum wage is a good thing, but is $15 an hour enough? Should it be $30 an hour or $50 an hour? Without a study, we run the risk of implementing legislation that does not properly address the needs of residents and that will have to be [readdressed] year after year.” 

A final vote on the legislation is scheduled for June 14.