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DC Council to Debate Overturning Ballot Initiative Giving Tipped Workers Higher Wage

The head of the D.C. Council says he will introduce legislation that would override the will of voters and overturn Initiative 77, which requires that restaurants phase in a $15 hourly minimum wage for tipped workers.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said on Monday that on Tuesday he would introduce a bill to overturn the rule. At least six Council members support overturning Initiative 77.

"It is important for our restaurant industry and, more importantly, our workers that this does not become the law in the District of Columbia," Mendelson said.

Initiative 77 was accepted by 55 percent of voters during the city’s primary election in June, despite vocal opposition from restaurant industry groups, many servers, more than half the D.C. Council and Mayor Muriel Bowser.

Mendelson told News4 that he believes the wording of the question on the ballot was misleading.

"It's a bad bill," said Luis Valle, a bartender and manager at Martin's Tavern in Georgetown. "We have seen some people come in and cross out the tips."

Valle said some customers believe that servers are already paid $15 an hour — which is incorrect.

Currently, tipped workers make at least $3.33 an hour, an exemption from the $12.50 minimum wage for other employees. Employers must make up the difference if tipped employees, including waiters, parking lot attendants and salon workers, don’t earn the minimum wage.

Under Initiative 77, the exemption would end by 2025, and employers would be required to pay every worker $15 an hour. Employees could still accept tips.

"The voters are the ones that said 'Let's create a level palying field, let's eliminate the two-tier wage system that has a poverty wage on one end and a living wage on the other," said Vasu Abhiraman, who campaigned for Initiative 77 with the group D.C. for Democracy.

The voters did say yes, but the D.C. Council can modify or overturn any ballot inititive. 

Even on election night, restaurant groups and lawmakers gave opponents hope that the law wouldn’t take effect.

"Seventy-seven I think could be problematic," Bowser told News4 during her election party. "We’ll see how the votes fall, pull all our policymakers together and see how we move forward."

"This fight isn’t over," the president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, Kathy Hollinger, said after the measure passed.

"[Voters] probably didn't listen to the workers and the small business community right here in D.C.," Hollinger told News4.

The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington and the National Restaurant Association contributed about $150,000 to a group fighting the initiative, Save Our Tips, News4 reported

Foodservice PAC, largely funded by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, spent $1,500 in March supporting a fundraiser for Mendelson, financial disclosures show

That group, along with and EDENS, a real estate company that owns properties in D.C. including Union Market, helped to organize the rally where Mendelson announced his plan to overturn Initiative 77.

"This initiative not only threatens the industry’s vitality but the overall economic vitality of our city," EDENS CEO Jodie W. McLean said in a statement. "Minimum wage is already mandated by law."

The Council will have a hearing on the issue in the fall. Then, any legislation must be approved twice before heading to the mayor's desk.

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