Metro Weekly

Fight over Initiative 77 remains passionate, but cordial, as voters cast ballots

Voters polite to campaigners from both sides, but the "yes" side may emerge victorious

Campaigners for the “No on 77” campaign outside a polling place – Photo by John Riley

Despite the sweltering heat of the early morning and the rain showers that dotted the afternoon, people on both sides of D.C.’s Initiative 77 continued to campaign in front of voting precincts as District residents flocked to the polls to cast ballots in Tuesday’s primary election.

Early this morning, in front of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Ward 2, 24-year-old Alex Moody and 20-year-old Maddie Clendening, interns at the National LGBTQ Task Force, held signs reading “Say Yes to Fair Wages.”

The Task Force is one of the partner organizations supporting the push for Initiative 77, which would eliminate the current system in which servers under which tipped employees, particularly those in the hospitality industry, are paid $3.33 per hour, with tips supplementing — and, in some cases, even exceeding — the difference between their hourly rate and the current D.C. minimum wage of $12.50. 

Under current law, District employers are required to make up that difference if an employee’s tips are not sufficient enough to bring them up to the hourly minimum wage of $12.50. But proponents of the initiative say that relying on customers to supplement servers’ incomes through tips is unfair and adds a level of uncertainty and volatility to servers’ lives. Instead, they argue that it is better to pay servers a flat hourly wage, with tips serving as an extra reward for high-quality service. If passed, Initiative 77 would raise that hourly rate to $15 an hour by 2026. 

“We believe raising the tipped minimum wage will be good for many people, specifically LGBTQ people, who are more likely to be living in poverty and homelessness than their straight counterparts,” said Moody. “We also believe, in general, having a living wage is better for people, and will bring in more money for people working in the service industry.”

Moody and Clendening said they received mostly positive comments from voters going into the polling booth, with supporters outnumbering opponents by a 3-1 margin. They said that everyone was cordial and that they experienced no nasty comments from opponents of the measure.

“I know there’s been some more intense conversations going on, but out here today, it’s been pretty peaceful,” Clendening said. “Very civil.”

At the same location, Elam, a barback campaigning against Initiative 77, said he was also receiving positive feedback from voters he approached. However, it was unclear whether voters going into the polling place were just being polite to supporters and opponents alike, or whether they were self-segregating and gravitating only towards those campaigners who feel as they do.

In any case, Elam believes tipping will decrease if people realize that all servers are making a $15 an hour.

“If this is approved, people won’t tip anymore. My boss will have to cover the increase in wages, and the price of food and beverages will go up,” he said. “I think most people are conscious of the fact that they will have to pay more. In the end, the customer will pay for it.”

But some hospitality industry professionals are in favor of Initiative 77, and are proud to be providing an alternative point of view to the flood of servers and bartenders who have spoken out against the measure.

Across town, at J.O. Wilson Elementary School in Ward 6, Annie R., a bartender who did not want to disclose the name of her employer, was campaigning in favor of Initiative 77. She said she makes anywhere from $200 to $400 a night in tips, but knows that most tipped workers aren’t making out as well as she is financially.

“I’m here to speak for folks who aren’t making the money I make,” she said. “I am the exception, I’m not the majority.”

Annie, who hails from California, which eliminated its tipped wage system in the 1970s, says she’s worked in the service industry in both California and D.C., and there’s really no difference in terms of the proportion of people who tip, and how generous they are. Currently, California’s minimum wage is on track to hit $15 per hour in 2024.

Annie rejects arguments made by opponents that increasing the hourly wage will put independent, non-chain establishments out of business, noting that it hasn’t hurt their ability to thrive in California.

“I’m from the Bay Area originally, and I go home regularly to visit, and there’s independently-owned restaurants,” she said. “Every time I go, there’s more and more. I have a friend who just opened a thriving restaurant in Oakland. So if this works in California, I know this can work in D.C.”

She also noted that every single one of the voters she talked to this morning at Wilson Elementary told her they support raising the hourly wage.

“The very loud voices that are speaking against Initiative 77 don’t speak for a lot of tipped workers that I know personally,” she said. “Some tipped workers are scared to come out publicly in favor of this initiative, but there are still a lot of voices out there that are in favor of 77. So those loud voices are not speaking for the rest of us.”

Aaron Riggins, a bartender and marketing manager at Trade, is one of those opponents to whom Annie is referring. 

“I really want to tackle some of the issues around Initiative 77, but I don’t think voting yes is the way to go about it. I think it will do more harm than good, and we can’t afford to take that risk,” he said as he braved a torrential downpour during the afternoon shift at Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church. “I see prices going up at restaurants to cover labor costs. Shifts will be cut. Positions will be eliminated.”

Riggins says that people at the polls seem to be receptive to the “no” campaign’s message, but it’s hard to gauge whether they’re sincere or just being polite.

“There are a lot of anecdotal testimonies out there on both sides, but I wish we could see more quantifiable data to give people a full picture of the effects of passing this,” he says, citing some flaws in the academic studies that are often cited by supporters of the measure. “I don’t think a lot of customers understand what’s going on, either, and maybe don’t understand the potential harm to the businesses, and to the very people that Initiative 77 is trying to help.”

Unfortunately for Riggins and his fellow workers who oppose Initiative 77, there is some polling to indicate that it will easily pass. According to a memo from the One Fair Wage DC campaign, polling done by respected Democratic pollster Celinda Lake indicates that at least 64% of D.C. voters are planning to vote “yes” on the initiative.

That same poll also indicates that 82% would be “concerned” if a councilmember voted to overturn the results of the ballot measure. Currently, 10 of the 13 members of the D.C. Council have come out in opposition to Initiative 77, as has Mayor Muriel Bowser. Only one councilmember, Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) has come out in support of it. But supporters of Initiative 77 warn that councilmembers who vote to overturn the results of Tuesday’s votes could find themselves facing the wrath of voters in future election cycles.

That’s part of the reason why Annie believes that the initiative will not only pass by a large margin, but will be allowed to become law.

“I’m confident that the city council is going to uphold the will of their constituents and the voters of D.C.,” she says.

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