Workers’ tips at issue in hotly contested vote

Adams Morgan is home to a variety of restaurants, bars and other local attractions. (Current file photo)

The most heated item on election ballots this year is Initiative 77, a yes-or-no vote on changing the current tipped wage setup for tipped workers in restaurants, bars and other establishments.

Advocates are testing voters’ appetite for left-wing causes, and they point to successes in states like California. If approved, the tipped wage would eventually be phased out and employers would pay workers the minimum wage upfront. Employers currently pay tipped workers $3.33, and if workers don’t at least make the $12.50 minimum wage from tips, establishments make up the rest. In practice, backers of the initiative say that many servers, particularly at national chain restaurants, are at risk of becoming victims of wage theft.

Opposing the initiative is just about every restaurant, member of the D.C. Council, Mayor Muriel Bowser, and the city’s pro-business class. “Save Our Tips” is their campaign slogan. Tensions often run high during public debates over the issue, as opponents say the measure will result in layoffs, higher menu prices, and even restaurant closures.

In Ward 3, Council member Mary Cheh has become an outlier among her colleagues for supporting Initiative 77. A number of candidates running to the left of incumbents also support the initiative, including Ed Lazere, who is challenging Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and Jeremiah Lowery, who is running against at-large Council member Anita Bonds.

Ward 3 Democrats voted last week to back the initiative at their June 4 meeting, with 58 percent of the delegates who voted expressing support for the measure.

Supporters also contend that female servers would be subject to less harassment from customers if they no longer have to rely on tips. Some servers who oppose the changes have argued that they and most of their colleagues make more than minimum wage with tips, and that eliminating the current pay setup would discourage patrons from tipping their servers as generously.