The first witness was gay. As was the last one, ending a marathon D.C. Council hearing at 3:21 a.m. the next day and more than 16 hours after it began.
Last week’s public hearing is said to have smashed previous records for both duration and number of participants, including the debate over marriage equality in 2009.
The Sept. 17 session was scheduled to allow public input on the “Tipped Wage Workers Fairness Amendment Act.” The bill, which would repeal Initiative 77, was introduced shortly after voters approved the highly controversial June 19 primary election ballot measure by a relatively narrow competitive tally and the closest margin for a ballot measure in at least several decades.
The hearing was dominated by a seemingly infinite multitude of tipped workers backing the repeal bill, filling the Council chamber throughout the event while some left to work their shifts and return later to present oral statements limited to three minutes.
The pervasive pushback against Initiative 77 by local tipped workers has produced one of the city’s largest grassroots efforts ever. Council members have characterized as nearly unanimous the overwhelming preponderance of workers opposed. The effort has actively engaged thousands of tipped workers and a large percentage of the total tip-earning hospitality workers citywide.
The New York-based political group that sponsored the initiative, ROC-United, has never been able to assemble more than a handful of actual restaurant and bar employees who support outlawing the current tip wage system by eliminating the “tip credit,” which the initiative would do if enacted.
A number of LGBT tipped workers and hospitality professionals testified in support of the repeal bill. I also spoke in favor of repeal, as managing consultant for the NO2DC77 committee formed by nightlife workers, venue operators, and community supporters.
LGBT tipped worker Erica Christian, for example, challenged assertions by initiative proponents that worker opinion is divided across racial and gender lines. “I’m black. I’m a woman. I’m queer. I’m a tipped employee,” she testified. “I paid my way through college working in this industry. I’ve only experienced tremendous access to upward mobility. … This industry has done nothing but uplift me.”
The repeal bill is co-sponsored by a seven-member majority of the Council, with a vote as early as next week. A total of 11 of the 13 members have opposed the initiative, along with Mayor Muriel Bowser and Attorney General Karl Racine.
District officials have determined by required payroll auditing that there are only a small number of hospitality tipped worker wage law infractions. D.C. Attorney General Racine says Initiative 77 “won’t improve our ability to enforce existing wage laws.”
There are few instances when the combined employer-paid hourly tip base wage, set to rise to a minimum of $5 in 2020, and customer tips do not exceed the minimum wage, set to rise to $15, and commonly by a substantial amount. When earnings infrequently fall below the minimum in a pay period, employers must pay the difference.
Worker concerns that tipping will decline if they receive the full minimum wage, reducing total earnings, and prompt staffing reductions or compel transition to an hourly-wage and service-included model due to massive new employer wage costs, have resonated with Council members. Legislators also rebuke a central claim by initiative backers, pointing out the measure will do nothing to curb any instances of sexual harassment.
Both employees and employers are unified in opposing the initiative, each with economic stability or financial survival at stake, creating a conundrum perplexing liberal residents and confounding leftist groups. Progressives have continued clinging to preconceived notions the mandate would benefit, and be supported by, workers.
Mayor Bowser confirmed this week she will sign the repeal bill if passed by the Council.
Workers are pressing legislators to get the job done. They are urging repeal by all Council members who opposed Initiative 77 to push the outsider group behind it out of town.