A proposed voter referendum to overturn the D.C. City Council’s decision to repeal Initiative 77 that voters approved in June to end the city’s tipped wage system was placed on hold Monday when a D.C. bartender filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the referendum.
The lawsuit reignited the heated controversy from earlier this year that pitted the majority of the city’s tipped workers at bars and restaurants against a New York-based labor group that organized Initiative 77. The group ROC United said the initiative was needed because the tipped wage system resulted in lower wages for tipped workers and promoted sexual harassment against female tipped workers.
The tipped workers who opposed the initiative argued that the current system, in which they receive a lower wage from their employer but make overall substantially higher earnings through tips, works well for them and would be jeopardized if the tipped wage system were eliminated.
The bartender who filed the lawsuit on Monday, Valerie Graham, states in the lawsuit that the referendum’s summary statement, which had been approved by the D.C. Board of Elections on Nov. 9, includes what she says was the same misleading wording as that of Initiative 77.
The lawsuit was written by the law firm that represents the leading opponents of Initiative 77, of which Graham says she is a part. Among other things it says the proposed referendum’s summary statement would mislead voters by claiming Initiative 77 “gradually increases the minimum wage for tipped employees from the current wage ($3.89/hour), to the same minimum wage as non-tipped employees by 2026.”
The lawsuit points out that tipped workers already receive the equivalent of the full minimum wage that non-tipped workers receive because under existing D.C. law employers of tipped workers are required to pay the difference if their employees’ tips fall short of the full minimum wage.
Supporters of what the Board of Elections has named Referendum 8 denounced the lawsuit as yet another ploy to deny the will of the city’s voters who approved Initiative 77 by a 56 percent margin.
They note that the timing of the lawsuit places a temporary hold on the Board of Election’s release of petitions that supporters must circulate to collect approximately 25,000 signatures needed to place the referendum on the ballot.
Under the city’s election law signatures for a referendum seeking to overturn a law passed by the City Council must be obtained between the time the bill calling for the law is passed and the time it becomes law. The election board has interpreted that to be the 30 “legislative” days that Congress takes to review all laws passed by the city.
Congress is expected to complete its review of the Council’s bill to repeal Initiative 77 by Dec. 13. Thus, if supporters of Referendum 8 are unable to complete the signature gathering process by that date, the referendum would be killed.
The restaurant industry filed its lawsuit “at the eleventh hour,” a spokesperson for Referendum 8 said in a statement. “It’s their latest effort to thwart the democratic process. We will fight this delaying tactic in court, and we will prevail in the end,” said the spokesperson, Rev. Graylan Hagler, pastor of D.C.’s Plymouth United Church of Christ.