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Repeal championed by restaurant lobbyists wins the day

Tim Nelson
October 17, 2018

On June 19th, District of Columbia voters approved Initiative 77, a ballot measure that would have entitled tipped restaurant workers to the same minimum wage as everyone else, with more than 55 percent of the vote. Just under four months later, a policy that wasn’t scheduled to take full effect until 2026 is already dead.

This week, the DC council (the District’s legislative body) passed a bill aimed at repealing Initiative 77 with an 8 to 5 vote. Supporters hoped to salvage a scaled back version of the plan after an initial 8 to 5 repeal vote, but this seems to be the end of the line unless Democratic mayor Muriel E. Bowser goes back on her stated intention to sign the bill.

The reversal will no doubt be hailed as a victory by the restaurant lobbying groups and DC area owners concerned about the implications of mandatory higher wages. These groups argued that the measure would lead to increased labor costs (which, you know, was kind of the point) and staff attrition due to loss of tipped income (though Initiative 77 wouldn’t suddenly make tipping illegal). Groups like the National Restaurant Association poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into anti-77 messaging in the runup to the vote, and more than 100 DC area bar and restaurants declared their opposition as well.

Given that Initiative 77 passed by a ten-point margin, there are obviously some losers as well. The complaints about the unpredictability of a tipped income, worries about wage theft from unscrupulous bosses, and the need to put up with sexual harassment from customers to get a decent tip first put forth by labor advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Center United will no longer be addressed through a higher wage floor.

Instead, the repeal bill will introduce some safeguards to protect against those complaints. It mandates the establishment of a hotline to report wage theft, the use of a third-party company for payroll to prevent wage theft, and annual sexual harassment training for restaurant managers. As of now, it’s unclear when these safeguards would be implemented.

Still, the move has to be frustrating for the service workers who don’t rake in huge tips from fancy cocktail bars. That’s not to mention the majority of DC voters who approved of 77, for whom this is just the latest example of political disenfranchisement in the District. For now, the fight to change the status quo in the restaurant industry will have to take place somewhere else.  

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