Initiative 82: Raising the minimum wage for tipped workers is on DC’s ballot

D.C. voters will get to decide if the city will raise the minimum wage for tipped workers such as servers, bartenders and salon workers at the ballot box on Tuesday.

If passed, Initiative 82 would incrementally increase the base minimum wage for tipped workers every year until it is equal with the non-tipped employee minimum wage on Jul. 1, 2027.

It looks similar to Initiative 77 that appeared on primary ballots in 2018, which was passed by voters but later repealed by D.C.’s Council.

In D.C., like most of the nation, the tipped minimum wage is lower than the standard. Currently it’s $5.35 an hour in the city, but restaurants or other establishments will pay up to the city’s standard $16.10 rate if those workers don’t make at least that in tips plus their base wage.

“I just want to make sure that workers have a safety net of a fair base wage before tips,” said Ryan O’Leary, a former D.C. server who proposed Initiative 82.

Many servers in D.C. were split four years ago on whether the nearly identical Initiative 77 would ultimately benefit them. This time, O’Leary said, the measure has overwhelming support from workers.

“COVID really has changed a lot of workers’ opinions of their jobs and what they’re worth,” he said. He sees this as an avenue to raise many servers in the area out of poverty.

“People who serve us food and service drinks deserve to be able to live in this city, and they deserve to be able to thrive,” O’Leary told the DMV Download podcast.

Many restaurants, including Cathedral Heights’ La Piquette, have rallied against the initiative.

“The restaurant landscape in the city will change,” La Piquette owner Cyrille Brenac told WTOP. “Maybe the big large groups will be OK … but as a small independent operator, I don’t want to raise my price too much.”

O’Leary said that’s exactly why the initiative needs to pass: “It’s definitely difficult for a restaurant to do this independent of it being a universal thing.”

Brenac also pushed back against the notion that servers don’t make a livable wage, claiming his servers can regularly pull in $40 to $60 an hour.

Geoff Tracy, of Chef Geoff’s, also told WTOP his servers can make $30 to $40 an hour routinely.

Another argument raised against the initiative is that restaurants will find a way to work around the additional cost imposed by a raised minimum wage by adding a percentage-based service charge to every bill.

“Restaurant operators will try to create a situation in which everybody’s relatively made whole, but the pie is going to be sliced up in different ways,” Tracy told WTOP. “You’re going to end up seeing a lot of service charges somewhere between eight and 12%.”

O’Leary says he already sees restaurants add that service charge in D.C.: “I think most of us have eaten at a place that had a 20% service charge. And I can’t speak for everyone, but I always tip on top of that. I think most people do as well.”

Brenac said the measure would raise costs for restaurants and customers in other ways, including taxes on said service charges and payroll increases across the board for kitchen and other staff.

O’Leary said the higher pay will attract workers to the city amid a labor shortage, pointing to states such as Minnesota and California, where the sub-minimum wage has been eliminated.

He also told WTOP that servers in those states he has spoken to have a better quality of life. He mentioned speaking to a server who moved from D.C. to California: ”He’s buying his first house; he just got back from my dream honeymoon; he’s thriving. And I just want restaurant workers to thrive here the same way that they do in places like L.A., San Francisco, Portland and Minneapolis.”

“When they were faced with COVID, you had less closures, you had less layoffs, and you saw the industry recover quicker,” said O’Leary.

Hear the full conversation with O’Leary and Tracy on the DMV Download podcast:

Will it stick?

Looming over Initiative 82 is the overturning of the Initiative 77 by the D.C. Council in 2018.

O’Leary is confident this council will not overturn the ballot measure if approved by voters: “I have six [council members] on the record signing a pledge, saying that they won’t alter or amend the initiative once it passes in a way that contradicts the spirit of what the initiative is trying to do.”

However, John Falcicchio, D.C.’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, told the DMV Download that the initiative would likely need to be reworked by the legislative body.

He said the restaurants and bars changing their bills to add service charges showed foresight, and that with that comes a more complicated tax issue.

“So at some point, what we have to do is figure out what’s the best way to implement it,” said Falcicchio. “That has to be implemented in a way that doesn’t lessen the amount of customers that they have coming in the doors.”

He also concluded that “it’s not something that we’re supportive of, at this time, especially as there’s so much turmoil in the industry.”

WTOP’s Megan Cloherty and Luke Garrett contributed to this report. 

Luke Lukert

Since joining WTOP Luke Lukert has held just about every job in the newsroom from producer to web writer and now he works as a full-time reporter. He is an avid fan of UGA football. Go Dawgs!

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