DC Initiative 82 campaign set to ramp up after legal battle

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After months of legal challenges and behind-the-scenes lobbying, DC residents will vote again in November on a controversial ballot initiative that would dramatically change the way tip workers in the district are paid.

The DC Court of Appeals on Thursday delivered a fatal blow the attempts of opponents of Initiative 82 to keep the measure out of the ballot, rejecting their request for a hearing before all the judges of the court. Voters will now be asked to decide whether they steadily raise the city’s minimum wage by $5.35 per hour to match the standard minimum wage of $16.10 per hour by 2027.

Proponents of the change say it would normalize wages for all workers, reducing wage theft while making tipping a “true freerather than a mechanism to subsidize workers’ wages. Critics say it would further hurt the city’s restaurant industry, which is already suffering the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, driving up prices and menu costs while reducing tips for workers.

DC I-82 haters hope last-ditch appeal will keep measure from passing

If any of this sounds familiar, that’s because it is: A nearly identical ballot measure, Initiative 77, passed 55% of district voters in 2018, but was repealed months later. later by the DC Council. While servers in 2018 routinely sported buttons that read “Save Our Tips,” businesses posted “Vote NO on Initiative 77” signs on doors, and bar and restaurant workers heckled pro-organizers. Initiative 77 at a raucous public hearing at the Black Cat nightclub – campaigning around Initiative 82 so far has been subdued, if not invisible.

But now, with the legal battle over, organizers on both sides of the debate say the stage is set for a louder and more public campaign with the general election less than two months away.

“We are gearing up for a six-week education campaign before the election,” said Adam Eidinger, an organizer with the pro-Initiative 82 initiative. DC Committee to Build a Better Restaurant Industry. “And I can’t imagine the other side isn’t.”

Like most states, DC excludes tipped workers — comprised primarily of restaurant servers and bartenders, but also valets — from the regular minimum wage, allowing employers to use customers’ tips to subsidize the rest. If the tips do not total $16.10, the employer is expected to make up the difference, with the excess going to the tipped employees.

Eidinger and other defenders had originally hoped residents would vote to change that system in the June primary, which is critical for votes in a heavily blue city like DC as it determines Democratic candidates. But the measure was pushed back to the Nov. 8 election after the DC Board of Elections in the spring took weeks to determine whether donors had collected enough valid signatures.

Supporters say the delays, in addition to the time and money spent fighting lawsuits, have hampered voter education efforts. The Committee to Build a Better Restaurant Industry had raised more than $309,000 as of July 10, according to campaign fundraising documents; about two-thirds of those contributions came from the Open Society Policy Center, a society-linked lobby group founded by George Soros Open Society Foundations. The committee spent over $303,000, mostly on consulting fees.

Opponents of the measure — headlined by the “No to I82” committee, which includes some restaurateurs and local workers – have raised around $312,000 through mid-July. The committee has received over $120,000 from the National Restaurant Association, over $45,000 from the Metropolitan Washington Restaurant Association and thousands more from local restaurant groups, including Carmine’s DC and Farmers Restaurant Group, which counts among its founders farmers and farmers, fishermen and bakers. six regional sites.

Jackie Greenbaum, whose DC restaurants include Bar Charley, Little Coco’s and El Chucho, isn’t surprised Initiative 82 has garnered less attention so far than the 2018 effort. concerns about the measure that previously, she said, many local restaurants and businesses are this time too preoccupied with day-to-day operations and financial survival to exert much effort in the fight against the measure .

“A few years ago, when you were somewhat stable, you – as a restaurant owner or as a tipping manager or staff – you had the option of spending your time fighting something like this if you thought that it was not good for the staff and not good for the business,” Greenbaum said. “Now we’re all hanging on a string. So no one really has the time, energy, or resources to do it.

But other restaurateurs say it’s only a matter of time before advocates on both sides of the issue step up their messaging.

“I don’t think the lack of energy surrounding it right now is significant, you know, ‘It’s going to be different from the last time’ – meetings I was in,” Eric Heidenberger said. , a partner in the DC Restaurant Group, which includes Bottom Line and Shaw’s Tavern. Lots of people have travelled, he notes, Congress hasn’t been in session and late summer is traditionally the slowest time of year for restaurants – but the initiative is still in the spirit of the industry.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize how vulnerable smaller operators are to DC right now. We are going through the highest inflation we have seen in a long time. Our costs are high,” he said. “It’s like, is this going to be a deathblow for a lot of restaurants, just given the timing, if this were to pass?”

In recent weeks, the No to I82 committee has created social media pages to amplify concerns about the measure; group posts include so far testimonials of DC tipped workers who say eliminating the tipped credit system would reduce their take home pay. On the other end of the spectrum, the Committee for Building a Better Restaurant Industry on Friday called for volunteers “to help put up campaign posters around busy intersections in all 8 Washington neighborhoods. “.

“I just want consumers to know that the only way restaurants can afford this type of huge increase is to charge a service fee,” Greenbaum said. “I think it’s going to take some kind of public education campaign to get diners to understand that’s what the outcome will be. And if they’re okay with that, fine. If they don’t agree with that, that’s where we’re headed.

Meanwhile, both sides believe they have the backing of the city’s tipped workforce.

Saru Jayaraman, Chairman of the National Advocacy Group A fair salary, who backed Initiative 77, said national support for eliminating the tipped minimum wage grew during the pandemic as tipped workers across the country were tasked with enforcing coronavirus-related rules and to masking. These interactions were sometimes negative or even hostile, affecting customer tips.

Massachusetts-based One Fair Wage is pushing for ballot measures and legislation similar to Initiative 82 in more than two dozen states. Michigan is on its way to becoming the eighth state without tip credit. Jayaraman said One Fair Wage has tracked at least 100 DC restaurants that have already eliminated tip credit to recruit new employees, including some businesses that were against the measure in 2018.

“It hasn’t been the same kind of fight, in part because so many restaurants that have fought this before are now paying [increased wages]. I think that’s why [the opposition’s] path has been as private as possible, through the courts,” she added. “It was not a public campaign of signs, windows and advertising.”

DC general election ballot taking shape as November approaches

If the measure is again approved by district voters, Jayaraman and other supporters say they are confident that the DC Council will not vote again to repeal it. The board has moved further left since 2018, and a number of lawmakers who voted to overturn Initiative 77 are no longer on the board, including David Grosso (I-At Large), Jack Evans (D- Ward 2) and Brandon T Todd (D-Ward 4).

Council Speaker Phil Mendelson (D), who led his repeal effort in 2018 and is running for re-election this year, told a candidates’ forum ahead of the June primary that he would Support the will of voters if Initiative 82 went to the polls. Eidinger said the promoters are asking other board members to make a similar pledge.

Citing survey data from early May, Kathy Hollinger, president of the Metropolitan Washington Restaurant Association, said the number of DC businesses that have moved away from a tip credit system reflects less than 7% of the catering industry in the city. She said the association’s strong stance on the initiative reflects the views of the city’s restaurateurs.

“I’ve always told operators, ‘As a small business owner, you should have the ability and flexibility to operate however you want – based on the unique needs of your business – as long as you do what you have to. legally need to be done by law, for salaries and everything else,” Hollinger said. “This idea that we’re coming up with an initiative that would change the model for all operators? .

Proponents of the measure say their pre-Election Day goal will be to explain to voters how tipped workers are compensated and why Initiative 82 would create such dramatic change for the district’s restaurant industry.

Opponents of the measure plan to do the same.

“We’re committed to our industry to make sure people know what they’re voting for — or not voting for,” Hollinger added. “And what is the impact on the people who work and earn a living here in the district.”

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