D.C. Council’s tipped minimum wage hearing draws hundreds

September 18, 2018

The D.C. Council held a crowded, contentious public hearing Monday on an initiative that eventually would raise the city’s tipped minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Hundreds of people crammed themselves into the Wilson Building to offer testimony on whether city lawmakers should overturn Initiative 77, which voters approved in June. The measure has been opposed by most council members, business owners and even tipped workers, who said the measure actually would decrease their earning potential.

By midafternoon, two panelists had burst into tears and many had shared stories of being attacked on social media and called “racist” for their position on the law.

Supporters of the initiative that a $15-per-hour guarantee would mean no more “economic anxiety” over tip-reliant jobs, like bartending and hairdressing.

Opponents argued that the city already requires employers to pay up to $13.89 an hour if a tipped worker’s paycheck falls below the D.C. minimum wage and that increasing labor costs would force employers to cut jobs.

Sheena Wills, who lives near Columbia Heights and tends bar at DC9, told The Washington Times that she and her colleagues have been called “racist” and “Trump supporters” at work for wearing buttons opposing the initiative.

“It feels like there’s a lot of social justice warriors out there to ‘help’ the little guy and ‘stand against the man,’” Ms. Wills said after testifying Monday.

“Of course they’d say that,” Initiative 77 supporter Trupti Patel, a bartender in Ward 2, told The Times, adding that those who oppose the measure were all about “vilifying” the other side.

Diana Ramirez, Deputy Co-Director of the Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC), said that restaurants’ subminimum wage of $3.33 an hour is a vestige of Jim Crow laws.

“The fact that we have a subminimum wage in the first place is racial injustice,” she said.

“I’m pretty sick and tired of insults back and forth,” Council member Charles Allen, Ward 6 Democrat, said from the dais as the hearing wore on into its fifth hour.

At least 250 people signed up to testify Monday, and the hearing was expected to last long into the evening.

Initiative 77 was approved by 56 percent of voters in the June 19 primary elections. Two weeks later, the majority of the council introduced the “Tipped Wage Workers Fairness Amendment Act of 2018,” which would overturn the measure.

The initiative could be the first overturned by the council since a 2001 measure on term limits.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, opened Monday’s hearing by calling the original ballot initiative “misleading at best, dishonest at worst” due to language he said made voters believe employers paid tipped workers only $3.85 per hour. He added that it used “tortured logic” to imply a fair wage would eliminate issues like wage theft and sexual harassment.

Council member Trayon White, Ward 8 Democrat, asked public witness Matt Hanson, director of DC Working Families and a former tipped employee, how raising the minimum wage would stop wage theft. Mr. Hanson admitted it probably wouldn’t, but added that “it does provide a sound floor for workers struggling to make ends meet.”

Those testifying in support of repealing the initiative included the staff and owners of establishments like Martin’s Tavern, Kitty O’Shea’s, Jackie Lee’s, Reliable Tavern and Ben’s Chili Bowl.

Opponents of the repeal measure included the DC Working Families, members of clergy, and the ROC, which is based in New York and is running campaigns for tipped minimum wage nationwide.

Dozens of industry workers criticized ROC for being an “outside” organization, with one witness testifying that the group had never visited the restaurants neighboring their Ward 1 headquarters.

The argument came to a head when Mr. Mendelson called one witness, ROC staffer Sophia Miyoshi, back to the table to grill her about her social media pages, which identify her as a “Bay area” employee, not a D.C. one as she testified. The ROC website also identifies her a “Bay area” employee.

Ms. Miyoshi apologized for the confusion and said she was recently stationed in the District. “I don’t update my Facebook often,” she said.

“My impression is that ROC sends you here,” Mr. Mendelson told her before resuming the hearing that afternoon.

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