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A new effort looks to raise DC tipped workers' minimum wage

The new proposal comes three years after the DC Council repealed the voter-approved 'Initiative 77' –which would have raised the minimum wage for tipped workers.

WASHINGTON — There is a new effort to establish a higher minimum wage for tipped employees in DC.

The recently launched DC Committee to Build a Better Restaurant Industry, which consists of service workers and businesses, wants tipped workers to be able to receive their tips on top of the $15 an hour minimum wage that all other workers qualify for in the District.

Currently, the base minimum wage for tipped employees is $5 an hour. According to the DC Department of Employment Services, it will increase to $5.05 on July 1. 

Under the current law, if a tipped employee does not make $15 an hour with their base minimum wage and tips, their employer must make up the difference.

The new restaurant committee said it has submitted its proposal for a ballot initiative on the issue to the DC Board of Elections. If DC voters were to approve the measure next year, the committee says tipped employees would see gradual pay raises until 2027. 

It would be that year when the committee would expect the tipped minimum wage rate to reach the minimum level everyone is paid at.

The committee said the current wage system for tipped employees allows for wage theft and discrimination.

“People of color and women of color do not make as much in tipped jobs as their White male counterparts, such as myself,” said Ryan O’Leary, who proposed the new initiative. “And, that's because the employers are able to give the bulk of the responsibility to pay their employees to the customer and customers can discriminate.”

O’Leary has waited tables, on and off, for the last decade in DC at various businesses. He said he was laid off last March at the start of the COVID pandemic.

Once DC started to open back up, O’Leary said he noticed many businesses began to complain of a local labor shortage.

But O’Leary said what was really at play was a “wage shortage” and that many tipped employees had grown tired of working for little pay.

“I was really emboldened, or just very motivated or inspired, by the number of people who were finally realizing their self-worth as workers and as people in the jobs that they do,” he said.

O’Leary said many tipped employees were disappointed after a similar proposal to establish a higher minimum wage for such workers failed to become a reality three years ago.

In 2018, DC voters passed Initiative 77 to raise the minimum wage for tipped employees in the District, but it was ultimately repealed by the DC Council.

The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington [RAMW] opposed Initiative 77 and pushed for its eventual repeal. The association argued the initiative would eliminate tips, overtime, and reduce staff sizes at restaurants and bars.

RAMW President and CEO Kathy Hollinger said the association has a similar stance this time around.

“It is probably most important right now, more than ever, to allow that choice to reside in the hands of a small business operator to figure out how they are going to navigate this new normal as they're staffing up again,” she said. “And as they look to make it through what we know will be a pretty tough recovery period.”

Hollinger added that she believes local restaurants and bars are actively searching for ways to address wage concerns amongst workers.

“We have wonderful restaurant owners in this region who are really thinking how to be creative with benefits, how to think about incentives, how to think about professional growth and trajectory,” she said.

Still, O’Leary says he is optimistic his committee’s new initiative will find the support it needs.

“It's a different DC Council,” he said. “Now, a few of the members who voted against it are no longer in office.”

O’Leary says the committee has a hearing scheduled with the DC Board of Elections in early August regarding its ballot proposal. After that, the committee says it will have to collect roughly 26,000 signatures from DC voters in 180 days, across all eight wards, to get the initiative on the ballot.

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