June 15, 2018 at 11:47 am EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
LGBT workers, activists speak out on ‘tipped wage’ ballot initiative
Gay News, Washington Blade, Gay Democrats, Initiative 77

Jerame Davis, executive director of Pride at Work, disputes claims that most D.C. tipped workers make far more than the minimum wage. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

LGBT activists involved in politics and labor groups have expressed opposing views on whether voters should approve or reject an initiative appearing on the June 19 D.C. primary ballot that calls for eliminating the so-called “tipped wage” exemption for bars, restaurants and other businesses that employ tipped workers.

However, among the LGBT tipped workers who have spoken out publicly on Initiative 77, the overwhelming majority say they oppose it on grounds that it would lower their income and jeopardize their jobs in the city’s highly competitive nightlife and hospitality industry.

If approved by voters, Initiative 77 would eliminate a provision in the city’s minimum wage law that allows businesses that employ tipped workers to pay those workers less than the prevailing minimum wage for non-tipped workers.

The “base” minimum wage for tipped workers is currently $3.33 per hour compared to the full D.C. minimum age of $12.50 per hour for all other workers. However, a provision in the current law requires restaurants, bars and other employers of tipped workers to pay the tipped workers the difference if their tips combined with the base pay of $3.33 per hour falls short of the $12.50 full minimum wage.

In 2016, the D.C. Council passed a law signed by Mayor Muriel Bowser raising the full minimum wage to $15 by 2020 for non-tipped workers and raising the tipped worker minimum wage to $5 per hour.

Initiative 77 would require tipped workers’ base minimum wage to gradually increase to $15 per hour over the next seven years, with the full minimum wage of $15 per hour put in place by 2025.

Many tipped workers who oppose the initiative, including LGBT tipped workers, have said they make significantly more than the full minimum wage now. They say they agree with concerns expressed by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington that eliminating the lower tipped wage system would create an economic hardship for most of the city’s restaurants and bars, which operate on a tight profit margin in the city’s highly competitive hospitality industry.

Restaurant association officials said if passed the initiative would force many restaurants to raise prices of food and beverages as well as put in place a service charge on customers’ checks, a development they say would prompt many customers to reduce or eliminate tipping.

Supporters of the initiative, led by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, or ROC United, which gathered the signatures needed to place Initiative 77 on the ballot, dispute that assessment. They argue that elimination of the tipped wage system in seven states, including California, has not resulted in the “sky falling in” and that tipped workers have continued to receive tips,

They also argue that servers, many of whom are African-American women, who work in restaurants other than upscale “white tablecloth” establishments, often don’t make the full minimum wage in tips. According to ROC United, these servers also often aren’t paid the difference for the full minimum wage by their employers and they fear losing their jobs if they file a complaint to obtain the full minimum wage.

ROC United and others supporting the measure also argue that the tipping system in the U.S. historically has led to lower tips for African-American servers and has subjected servers to sexual harassment by customers.

A group opposing the initiative called NO2DC77, which was created by employees and owners of three D.C. gay bars, has been releasing videos and public statements by both LGBT and straight servers, including African-American servers, strongly disputing the claims by ROC United.

Waiters and bartenders associated with NO2DC77 are calling on voters to vote no on the initiative to “save our tips” and save their jobs.

The outspoken opposition to the initiative by many tipped workers has been credited with prompting Mayor Bowser, 10 members of the 13-member D.C. Council, including Council Chair Phil Mendelson, and D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine to come out against Initiative 77. Among those opposing the ballot measure is former D.C. mayor and current Council member Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7).

In a statement released last week, Gray said he is concerned that in addition to hurting tipped workers the initiative would discourage restaurants and other hospitality venues from opening in his ward and in other parts of the city east of the Anacostia River, which historically have been economically disadvantaged.

Among those supporting Initiative 77 is Jerame Davis, executive director of Pride at Work, an LGBT division within the AFL-CIO. Davis disputes claims by opponents that most D.C. tipped workers make far more than the minimum wage. He points to a study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showing the median earnings of tipped workers in D.C. is approximately $11.81 per hours.

“There’s no reason these workers should be left behind,” he said in a commentary he submitted to the Washington Blade. “It’s time for them to earn a guaranteed $15 wage – just like their counterparts in every other industry – while continuing to collect tips,” he said.

Longtime gay nightlife and small business advocate Mark Lee, who is serving as a consultant to NO2DC77, has said LGBT people make up a disproportionately large number of tipped workers in D.C. and other places.

“Gay, lesbian, and transgender servers and bartenders – and their professional colleagues at every bar and restaurant across the District – are hopeful that voters will listen to them,” Lee said. Mayor Bowser and a “super-majority” of the D.C. Council have listened to tipped workers and “they are all urging voters to reject this outsider group’s attempt to outlaw the tip-wage system,” Lee said. “If voters choose to support the workers whose jobs, livelihoods and incomes are on the line, they will win.”

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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