Metro Weekly

Tipping Point: Tempers flare over Initiative 77 as voters head to polls

Threats, accusations, and dueling narratives are being traded as Election Day nears

A receipt at Number Nine asking customers to vote against Initiative 77 – Courtesy of Mark Lee.

In the final days ahead of what would otherwise be a mundane primary election this Tuesday, D.C.’s voters are finding themselves entrenched in an escalating war of words between proponents and opponents of the ballot measure known as Initiative 77.

In public forums and on social media, both sides accuse each other of spreading misinformation and engaging in over-the-top rhetoric to sway undecided voters. Facebook friends — many of them liberal Democrats — are divided on the issue, engaging in heated debates on each other’s timelines.

Opponents of the initiative report having their signs altered or torn down, with videos and photos on Facebook purporting to have caught supporters of Initiative 77 in the act. Some tipped workers who have come out in support of the measure report being barraged with threats.

“The opposition descended on my Instagram page last week,” says Thea Bryan, a tipped worker who declined to name her employer. “It got so bad I had to block about twelve people. Just the name-calling and attacks on my ability to do my job, like, ‘Oh, you must suck at your job’ — these are very hurtful comments. There was even a point where I was afraid to go out in a bar in D.C. for fear of being recognized and spat on.”

Initiative 77 would eliminate the so-called “tip credit,” under which servers, bartenders, and other “front of the house” staff are paid an hourly wage of $3.33, but use their tips to make up the difference between their hourly wage and the current minimum wage of $12.50 per hour. Some tipped workers are so well-rewarded by customers that they exceed that average. Under current law, employers are required to compensate workers who don’t earn enough in tips to reach the standard hourly minimum wage. And that’s where the divisions begin.

Proponents of the initiative say they would like to see servers and bartenders paid the same hourly wage of $15 an hour as other minimum wage workers in the District. Under current law, non-tipped workers will get their pay hike in 2020, with subsequent increases tied to inflation.

Initiative 77 would gradually phase in similar wage increases by 2026, under the assumption that the rate of at least $15 an hour will constitute a “living wage” that provides stability and will reduce the number of servers and bartenders living in poverty. Any tips from customers would only further enrich servers and bartenders who provide high-quality, excellent service.

But opponents, including a number of tipped workers, say their tips already help them exceed the hourly minimum wage. They fear higher hourly wages will force businesses to raise prices or institute service charges that in turn will lead customers to tip less or not at all, resulting in a net loss of take-home pay. And they’re highly skeptical of claims made by proponents that raising hourly wages will help combat wage theft or sexual harassment.

Bryan, who says she has encountered mostly “yes” voters when canvassing in some neighborhoods of Ward 3, believes the hostile rhetoric and level of vitriol between supporters and opponents of the ballot measure has been escalated by a small group of elite servers who are opposed to Initiative 77.

“I have a theory,” she says. “It’s kind of like high school. There’s this group of bartenders who are like the popular kids, and some of the popular kids work at the highest-grossing restaurants in the entire country. And everybody wants to be a part of the in-crowd.”

Bryan is particularly incensed by suggestions from opponents of Initiative 77 that the measure would eliminate tipping altogether, which is false, and that she personally wants to eliminate tipping. She says that charge is particularly ironic, given that she testified in front of Congress against a Trump administration proposal that would have allowed employers to pocket server’s tips or share them with other workers for whom the tip wasn’t originally intended.

Bryan supports paying tipped workers more per hour, which would reduce the volatility that can come from working in the restaurant industry, where earnings are often tied to factors out of workers’ control.

“If raising wages causes businesses to shut down, why aren’t we seeing massive numbers of restaurants shutting down? Because the ‘back of the house’ staff — cooks, hostesses, dishwashers — have been receiving raises [in the minimum wage] every year for the past couple of years,” she says.

Dusty Martinez, a manager and bartender at Trade nightclub, opposes Initiative 77 because he feels it doesn’t address a host of other, more pressing issues affecting servers and bartenders. 

“[Initiative] 77 is just like, ‘Hey, you’re going to get $15 an hour. Good luck on everything else,'” he says. “We deserve something better than that. $15 an hour doesn’t solve sexual harassment. It doesn’t solve wage theft.”

Martinez, who has appeared in a video outlining why he opposes the measure, is incensed at the charges, leveled by supporters of I-77, that managers and owners are intimidating workers into opposing the initiative.

“We’re dedicated to a polling station come Tuesday,” he says. “We’ve dedicated a slot of time, and I’ve reached out to my employees and said, ‘This is on a volunteer basis. We’re going to go to a polling station. If you don’t want to, don’t come.’ There’s no repercussion for not coming. There’s no repercussion for being a ‘yes’ person.”

T.J., a tipped worker who asked not to be identified due to her employer’s opposition to Initiative 77, says the escalation in nastiness is rooted in the “misinformation” given out by some opponents claiming that the ballot measure will outlaw or eliminate tipping altogether. That, in turn, she says, has led people who fear that their livelihoods are at risk to attack those they see as political enemies.

But Mark Lee, a consultant for the No on 77 campaign, says that the nastiness is coming from the ‘yes’ campaign, who are frustrated at the pushback they’ve received from some of the workers they purport to be defending.

“People who are proponents of this radical concept are freaked out that the momentum seems to have shifted to the worker voices, and are just acting out of frustration,” he says, pointing to Facebook videos (since made private) of people tearing down “No on 77” campaign signs. “I think it unnerves some people in the general public.”

Lee says some of the arguments employed by the “yes” side are insulting and belittling to tipped workers.

“I talk to a lot of tipped employees every day, and they have two frustrations. One is that they feel the public isn’t listening to their voice, because, as is readily apparent, the vast and overwhelming majority of tipped employees working in the District are strongly opposed to Initiative 77. The other thing that frustrates them, and in fact, makes them angry, is that their employers are directing their opinions, as if they’re not smart enough to think for themselves. They know best how they make a living, how their livelihood is secured, and they resent the suggestion that they are being coerced into something because their employer wants them to do that.”

The National LGBTQ Task Force, which came out in favor of Initiative 77, found itself being protested by opponents of the measure, who gathered outside the group’s headquarters and implored them to “listen to tipped workers.”

Alex Morash, media director for the National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund, says the organization came to support the initiative after looking at facts and data from seven West Coast states that have passed similar laws requiring restaurant workers to be paid the same as other minimum-wage employees.

“The Task Force has been working on a group of economic justice issues, and one of the reasons we wanted to come out in favor of this initiative was we’ve looked at the data and it’s something that consistently leads to better wages for working people,” says Morash, who has had ad hominem attacks launched against him on Twitter by opponents of Initiative 77. 

One Twitter user who took part in the protest of the Task Force wrote in response to Morash: “Hey great job being a coward and not coming downstairs to talk to the workers you claim to represent. What a great advocate!”

Morash insists the Task Force have the facts on its side, pointing to a study by researchers at Cornell University examining how restaurant employment was affected by increases in the minimum wage. Looking at data from more than a 20-year-period, dealing with both increases for tipped and non-tipped workers, researchers found “little to no change” in employment levels where modest increases in the hourly wages took effect.

Sam Simpson, a tipped worker who opposes Initiative 77, feels that people pushing the initiative have good intentions but believes they are misguided. “This is a one-size-fits-all solution that will not be beneficial and might even exacerbate the problems they’re trying to solve,” he says.  He notes that if a restaurant offsets the minimum wage increase by adding a service fee of, say, 20%, it will lead to decreased tips. “Rather than tipping, the customer will be paying more to cover increased payroll costs for the restaurant. It won’t affect the high-income-earning restaurants where the costs can be absorbed, but it will hurt the mom-and-pop shops where people won’t want to pay $14 for a burger.”

T.J. does not believe that raising the wages of tipped employees to a fair wage will lead to declines in tipping, and accuses restaurant owners of using scare tactics to manipulate their employees.

“Tipping is not going to go away,” she says. “It’s compulsory, not mandatory. It’s steeped in American culture. At the end of the day, restaurant owners and operators claim to have the entrepreneurial spirit. If they have that entrepreneurial spirit, this is an issue and a problem that they can easily solve. They don’t have to raise prices in order to make this. There are many innovative and creative ways to address this problem.

“Every restaurant and business is going to pick a strategy and a method that works best for them. We’ve seen restaurants that tried to implement service charges, and it did not work out well for them because their staff left. Restaurants do not want to hurt their brand and their reputation that they spent months and years building.”

But Sheena Willis, a bartender at DC9 who has worked at smaller, non-chain establishments like Wonderland Ballroom and Looking Glass Lounge, has had people tell her to her face that they won’t continue to tip if they know she’s making $15 an hour.

Willis has many reservations about Initiative 77, including the way it’s been worded on the ballot. Although the pro-77 forces were not the ones who decided on the final ballot language, Willis feels they were given an unfair advantage, given the way the D.C. Board of Elections, which is supposed to be impartial, wrote its summary statement.

“The first and third points of the ballot initiative are already law, and most people don’t know this is what we’re guaranteed, because they don’t know how we’re paid,” she says. “So it’s very misleading and confusing to the average voter.”

Willis is skeptical that the independent, non-chain businesses where she works and likes to frequent in her off hours will be able to survive.  “I honestly think that if this passes, the places that will be affected the most won’t be Clyde’s or the Hamilton, it’ll be the small neighborhood bars,” she says.

Willis bristles at the notion that she’s being forced to speak a certain way to appease her employer, or that she can’t make her own informed decisions about Initiative 77. She also rejects the claim, made by supporters of the initiative, that they are speaking on behalf of women or industry workers of color, like herself.

“I was watching the World Cup with a friend of mine who is D.C. born and raised, whose background is Salvadoran, and we were talking about how frustrating it is for people to say that it’s only affluent white men who work in fancy restaurants in cocktail bars who are against 77,” she says. “It’s funny to see the looks of surprise and how taken aback people are, the progressives in D.C. who want to help out the minorities, and have this savior mentality, and are so shocked to see we’re against it. It’s not just straight white men who wear ties and have dry cleaning allowances who oppose this.”

Travis Ballie, a D.C. voter and progressive activist who lives in Ward 7, supports Initiative 77 because he sees it as a way to fix inequality within the city. He believes raising the minimum wage for tipped workers, along with initiative like paid family leave and paid sick leave, will help those workers exit the cycle of poverty.

“For me, what we as a culture, see a tip as is to thank someone for good service. And I’m not able to do that if my tip is just a basic necessity someone needs to survive. I don’t have a choice in tipping if I know that my server depends on that to pay their bills, to save their house, to fill their own food shelves. When I tip, I want it to mean appreciation, not me subsidizing a business by paying what they should be paying.”

He feels overall that there will be a net benefit for most of the tipped workers in the city, as it will be easier to track and punish employers who engage in wage theft.

“Let’s presume the worst and assume for some folks maybe there will be disruption,” Ballie adds. “For the majority of servers, especially those concentrated at the very bottom, we need to set one level playing field, so you don’t have hire a lawyer and know employment law to access the basic minimum wage. It’s a much more commonsense system that’s simpler and transparent.”

Ballie acknowledges that there is a chance that the D.C. Council — a majority of whom have stated their opposition to the measure — could overturn the results of the initiative if it passes. But even then, he believes organizers will bring the issue back again, seeing it as a basic issue of fairness.

“This does not create a worker’s paradise,” he says. “But it is one step in a multi-faceted solution that is beginning to tip the scales, ever so slowly, in favor of workers.”

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