Statements by Councilmembers from September 17 Hearing Regarding Repeal of Initiative 77
Some councilmembers provided excerpts from the statements they made at the September 17 hearing on the repeal of Initiative 77 for publication on the Council’s website. These statements are included below.
Phil Mendelson, Chairman
On June 19, 2018, Initiative 77 was approved through a ballot initiative. This is how the Initiative was explained to voters; this is the summary statement that was on the ballot:
“If enacted, this initiative will gradually increase the minimum wage in the District of Columbia to $15 hourly by 2020; gradually increase the minimum wage for tipped employees so that they receive the same minimum wage directly from their employer as other employees by 2026: Beginning in 2021, require minimum wage to increase yearly in proportion to increases in the consumer price index. The minimum wage increases under the initiative will not apply to DC government employees or employees of D.C. government contractors.”
This statement on the ballot was misleading at best, dishonest at worst. The very first phrase – “If enacted, this initiative will gradually increase the minimum wage in the District of Columbia to $15 hourly by 2020” – is false. Because the $15 minimum wage is already required pursuant to DC Law 21-144, the “Fair Shot Minimum Wage Amendment Act of 2016.” The next phrase – “gradually increase the minimum wage for tipped employees so that they receive
the same minimum wage directly from their employer as other employees by 2026” – is misleading, because it suggests that tipped employees are not now entitled to the same minimum wage as all other employees, even though current law requires it.
The proponents’ political rhetoric selling the initiative was equally misleading: that a vote for the initiative was a vote to increase wages for workers. Well, actually no, because all workers, including tipped workers are entitled to the same minimum wage. And, actually, many workers fear – and I believe – they will see a reduction in their earnings.
Initiative proponents are now arguing that it is undemocratic to repeal the will of the voters, even though the Initiative was falsely promoted.
Another argument for the initiative is that it will “protect” workers from sexual harassment: that a majority of tipped workers are women, that because they rely on tips for their income they have to put up with sexual harassment, that the so-called “One Fair Wage”’ will reduce their need for tips, therefore female servers will no longer be subjected to harassment, and therefore sexual harassment will end. It is appealing to suggest this, but it is tortured logic. Abusive men do not harass because waitresses tolerate it in order to get tips. Abusive men exert their so-called “power” in any situation they can (let’s not forget the “Me Too” movement). Let me be clear: sexual harassment is despicable and must not be tolerated. But this Initiative is a false promise; it will not end sexual harassment; nor will it “protect” workers from it.
Another argument for the initiative is that “One Fair Wage” will reduce wage theft. But employers who exploit employees will do so regardless, and the answer is not to change the economics of all restaurants, or to jeopardize the pay of well-paid tipped workers, but to improve enforcement by the government. This summer, for the first time that I know of, the DC Attorney General took two employers to court for wage theft – not involving tipped workers – and we need more of that. Initiative 77 will not solve or prevent wage theft.
Politically, ballot measures to raise the minimum wage are very popular. That is not what Initiative 77 does, but that is how it was sold to the voters. 77 may be well-intentioned, but the very people the Initiative is intended to help are overwhelmingly opposed. If we want to help workers – protect them from harassment and exploitation – there are better ways than Initiative 77.
But what is most troubling, is that a supposedly progressive initiative to benefit workers instead will hurt workers. Some workers will see a reduction in their earnings. That’s just not the right formula for helping workers.
Finally, I want to return to the issue of overturning an initiative. I acknowledge that there are voters who are offended that the Council is considering this. I believe every councilmember is uneasy about it. But I say this: the Council amends laws all the time. And if a law is a bad law it should be amended or repealed. It doesn’t matter if the law was adopted by Congress, the voters, or ourselves. Indeed, we adopted an eviction law this past June that we then repealed two weeks later. A bad law should be amended or repealed. So the true issue today is the merits. Is Initiative 77 good law?
Robert White, At-Large
I recognize that many residents are deeply concerned about Initiative 77, and many are concerned about the proposal to repeal it. Prior to the primary in June, I spoke out in opposition to Initiative 77. I did not do so lightly. I did so because I reached out to tipped workers every way I could, offering opportunities for feedback in person or online, anonymously or publicly. The vast majority opposed Initiative 77. I recognize, of course, that many tipped workers face language barriers, or are worried about their immigration status, or retaliation, or their economic stability. But I did not believe I could take a position solely on the prospect of a hypothetical hidden majority of tipped workers. I could not support an initiative designed to help a group who, according to all the evidence available to me, largely did not want this help. On June 19th, I lost that vote.
Now, we are facing a different question. While the language of the ballot initiative was deceptive, I cannot assume voters were uninformed after such a vigorous campaign. While turnout in a primary election was low, I cannot discount the outcome of a ballot that reelected many of my colleagues. Of course, the Council has the power to overturn a ballot initiative and has done so in the past. I believe, however, that such power should only be used in the most extraordinary of circumstances – my disagreement with the outcome is not good enough.
But, I am also realistic. Seven of my colleagues have already indicated that they want to repeal Initiative 77. Given that, my hope now is that we can work together to find some compromise that respects the vote on June 19th, while also protecting our tipped workers from radical or swift change.
Mary Cheh, Ward 3
I supported Initiative 77 as a matter of fairness for low-wage workers. The repeal effort is based on various claims about the harm Initiative 77 would cause if it were allowed to take effect. Although I take these claims seriously, in my view they are speculative and not borne out by the experience of the other jurisdictions that have one wage. Data from the National Restaurant Association shows that restaurants in those jurisdictions are expected, in all cases but one, to exceed the District’s projected restaurant growth. And even in that case, the growth is effectively on par.
It has been argued that if Initiative 77 is left to stand, workers will be harmed because consumers will tip less or stop tipping altogether. The practical reality of our tipping culture says otherwise: ask yourself, have you ever asked your server what her base hourly wage was to determine the amount that you plan to tip her? Of course not. The data here, too, refutes the claim. The Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that median wages for bartenders and servers in comparable cities within jurisdictions with one wage have held steady or grown over the last several years.
Let’s be very clear: no one wants to see our restaurant industry harmed. We all want it to continue to be robust and vibrant, and I believe there is a path forward that will preserve the will of the voters and allay the concerns of the restaurant industry. I intend to offer a compromise amendment that would extend the phase-in period over a longer number of years. My amendment would allow restaurants to better plan for the wage increases, and, if any of the claimed negative effects begin to appear, allow the Council to intervene as necessary to ameliorate them.
Brandon Todd, Ward 4
I have been outspoken in my opposition to Initiative 77 as written because I’ve heard from so many tipped employees themselves. Regardless of the points of view, we share the same common ground; finding a way to ensure every tipped employee makes at least the minimum wage. This is the task before us today and over the coming months.
We know that there are good actors out there, lots of them, and we must recognize that. Employers who work hard to provide job opportunities, create accommodating schedules, invest in, and train their staff, and that are intimately familiar with the challenges tipped employees face, because they were once a tipped employee. However, there are also bad actors, who are not doing what they should and must be held accountable. The question is, should these bad actors be the basis for changing an entire system that works for so many and allows them to earn an income beyond the minimum wage?
Change in policy of this magnitude requires deliberation that is much more nuanced than any “yes” or “no” vote cast on a ballot. I co-introduced the “Tipped Wage Workers Fairness Amendment Act of 2018” with the majority of my colleagues, not in an effort to undercut the democratic process, but rather to enhance it. Nuanced deliberation was not afforded through the ballot initiative process. The legislative process, with public hearings, expert witnesses, and open discussion, is the best way to examine a question with implications this significant.
With the introduction of this legislation, we have initiated a process to gain a more complete understanding of how we can best achieve the goal of ensuring that all Washingtonians earn at least the minimum wage.
Charles Allen, Ward 6
I talked with tipped employees on the street, in their living rooms, on their doorsteps, no boss or manager over their shoulders and these voices were strong cross-section of our city itself, and I heard pretty strongly from most workers that they opposed the initiative.
While I personally didn’t support the ballot measure, I know the voters I spoke with carefully considered their vote. I’ve heard from constituents urging both to support and oppose any repeal and I’ve heard from many constituents who also voted against the initiative but now oppose overturning the results of the referendum and still others that want the council to implement some version of an amended version of the policy.
I was such a strong supporter of raising DC’s minimum wage to $15. I’ve strengthened DC’s wage theft laws and its why I worked to fund full-time attorneys in the office of the Attorney General to prosecute wage theft aggressively.
I have no doubt that had this initiative gone through the legislative body with public hearings and amendments, the final product would look different. Every legislative body amends laws – it is a fairly essential part of the job. I’m looking to see whether there’s room for the sides of this debate to not go to their corners, but rather find common ground.
Whether we can recognize there are tipped employees that make good money and have chosen a career that provides for them and their families and that there are tipped employees that face wage theft and struggle for a fair wage and a healthy workplace. Whether we can recognize there are outstanding and great local businesses that do right by their employees and take care of them and there are employers that do not. I hope that we do agree on a shared goal we want to ensure all employees in the District earn a fair wage while preserving our growing neighborhood and local business.
Trayon White, Ward 8
By law, employers must ensure that tipped workers, who make less than $4.00 an hour make at least $13.25 by providing a tip credit to supplement worker’s earnings if they earn enough tips to make the minimum wage. Initiative 77 would gradually phase out the tipped minimum wage so that all workers would have the same minimum wage by 2026. The question is whether this will ultimately benefit workers given the potential for labor cuts and lower wages for tipped employees.
Everyone agrees that we must do more to ensure that working class Washingtonians can afford to live and thrive in this city. DC’s poverty rate is far above the national average with 11 percent of the population falling below the federal poverty line of $24,340 for a family of four. For a two parent, two child family in Washington DC, it costs $7,000 per month to secure a modest yet adequate standard of living. Because poverty is associated with lower educational outcomes, poor nutrition and health, child neglect, and increased neighborhood crime, we must shape policies that tackle poverty. Given the fact that the majority of low-income residents live in a household where at least one adult works, it is critical that we get this right to ensure that workers earn wages in which they can support themselves and their families.
When hearing from workers in my conversations in the community, I often heard directly from workers speaking out against Initiative 77 out of fears that their wages would be reduced as a result, which has characterized my position on this issue. However, I am open to listening and working on a compromise because I have also heard from voices supportive of the Initiative.