The District holds its primary elections for mayor, D.C. Council seats and other positions, but the most divisive ballot item is a measure on how to pay workers who have relied on tips.
Mayor Muriel Bowser, most councilmembers and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton are expected to win their Democratic primaries, which historically have determined the winner in November’s general elections.
Uncertainty hovers over Initiative 77, which calls for the city’s minimum wage to apply to all hourly workers, including bartenders, servers, table bussers and others who typically receive tips. It would end the District’s two-tiered wage system that currently allows such workers to earn a base pay of $3.33 an hour.
City law already requires restaurants to make up the difference between that amount and the current $12.50-an-hour minimum wage when employees earn less than minimum wage. The District’s minimum wage is to climb to $15 an hour by 2025.
Worker rights advocates have backed the initiative, and business owners have opposed it.
“I think we should really be enforcing the laws that already exist instead of creating new ones that burden small business owners,” a spokesperson from the Restaurants Association of Metropolitan Washington told The Washington Times on Monday.
But tipped employees like Sheena Wills, 35, of Columbia Heights, also have spoken out against Initiative 77 in town meetings and rallies.
Ms. Wills said she regularly earns between $25 and $35 an hour as a bartender at DC9 nightclub and fears that increasing labor costs will reduce the tips that help her earn so much.
“No other industry is voting on how you get paid and your livelihood,” she said.
New York City enacted a tipped wage policy in 2015, as have other jurisdictions.
“The sky is not going to fall. It hasn’t fallen in seven states, and it hasn’t fallen in Flagstaff, Arizona,” said Eva Putzova, a spokeswoman for the New York-based Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United, which is driving campaigns for minimum wage nationwide.
ROC says businesses can shoulder the costs and patrons will continue tipping, citing an almost 7 percent growth in the Flagstaff’s restaurant industry after voting to establish minimum wage for tipped employees.
Mr. Putzova, herself a former Flagstaff city councilmember who supported the measure, said she hadn’t seen any evidence that, “increasing the tipped wage would impact the restaurants negatively.”
But local lawmakers remain skeptical about how D.C. bars and restaurants will absorb the increased labor costs, with the mayor and majority of the council opposing the ballot measure.
“What truly worries me about Initiative 77 is the phase-out of the tipped wage,” councilmember Elissa Silverman, at-large independent, said Monday. “I think it is too aggressive a timeline and phase out.”
If the initiative passes, business owners must start paying employees $12 more an hour within the next seven years.
Ms. Silverman said believes many restaurant owners will have to choose between reducing their workforce or passing cost on to patrons. The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington said its common for restaurants to add a “service charge” to meals that could drive up the price of eating out in the District.
ROC disputes this, and adds that establishing minimum wage as the base pay for all employees helps reduce sexual harassments. The rate of sexual harassment, a recent focus with the #MeToo movement, decreased by half in states that enacted minimum wage laws, according to studies by ROC.
“You can create boundaries. You can set what’s acceptable. You are not a victim anymore because you have power,” Ms. Putzova said.
However a think tank funded by D.C.-based communications firm Berman and Co. finds fault with the ROC study, citing data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that showed no change in the number of harassment complaints between states that did and did not enact minimum wage for tipped employees.