July 11, 2018 at 2:54 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
LGBT tipped workers join effort to repeal Initiative 77
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Council Chair Phil Mendelson introduced a bill to repeal Initiative 77, which voters approved by a 56 percent to 44 percent margin. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

LGBT tipped workers, including many who work in the city’s gay bars, were among more than 200 hospitality industry employees and managers who visited members of the D.C. City Council on Monday to urge the Council to overturn an initiative passed by the city’s voters last month that would end the tipped wage system.

Seven members of the Council, including Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large), responded the next day by introducing a bill to repeal Initiative 77, which voters approved by a 56 percent to 44 percent margin in the city’s June 19 primary election.

Initiative 77, if it remains in effect, would require restaurants, bars and other employers of tipped workers to pay those workers the city’s full minimum wage, which is currently $13.25 per hour and which will increase to $15 per hour in 2020. The minimum wage for tipped workers is currently $3.89 per hour.

Under the so-called tipped wage law, employers in the city’s highly competitive restaurant, bar and nightclub industries are allowed to pay their tipped workers a lower minimum wage on grounds that they make more than the city’s full minimum wage in tips. Restaurant owners have said Initiative 77 would increase their labor costs to a degree that they could be forced out of business or be forced to raise prices for food and beverages, which they say would result in lower tips and a lower overall income for tipped workers.

Mendelson said he believed the initiative was confusing to voters because it didn’t make clear that under the city’s current “tipped wage” law employers of tipped workers are required to pay them the difference if their tips fall short of the full city minimum wage.

He noted that while he spoke out against the initiative during his re-election campaign this spring in the Democratic primary and his opponent was a strong supporter of the initiative, he won the primary with 63 percent of the vote.

Supporters of Initiative 77, including some local and national LGBT advocacy organizations, said many tipped workers do not earn the full minimum wage in tips and that some employers were not paying them the difference. Supporters also argued that relying on tips for their income has subjected workers to sexual harassment by customers.

They pointed out that in most states and cities that have enacted laws similar to Initiative 77 take-home pay from both wages and tips has increased.

Mendelson said the bill calling for repealing Initiative 77 would be taken up by the Council in September after it returns from its summer recess, which begins this week. The seven Council members who co-introduced the bill make up a majority of the 13-member Council.

With at least two other Council members saying they are leaning toward voting for the repeal bill and with Mayor Muriel Bowser saying her opposition to the initiative has not changed since it passed in the election last month, most observers familiar with the Council expect the repeal bill to pass.

“It would be deeply undemocratic for Council to overturn the will of the people,” said Diana Ramirez, spokesperson for One Fair Wage D.C., the group that led the campaign in support of Initiative 77.

Gay nightlife advocate Mark Lee, who was among the leaders of a group representing tipped workers and restaurants and bars opposed to the initiative, said he is certain a majority of tipped workers support the repeal bill.

“Tipped workers at the city’s bars, restaurants, and nightclubs, including the large number of LGBT hospitality professionals, breathed a sigh of relief this week that a majority of the D.C. Council has introduced a bill to repeal Initiative 77,” Lee said.

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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