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Labor Group Pushing For $15 Minimum Wage, Including For Tipped Workers

D.C. minimum wage is increasing to $11.50, but some activists would like to see it go all the way to $15.
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D.C. minimum wage is increasing to $11.50, but some activists would like to see it go all the way to $15.

A national group is pushing a ballot initiative in D.C. that would increase the city's minimum wage to $15, among the highest in the country, and put tipped workers on the same pay scale as other low-wage workers.

Earlier this month, the D.C. Board of Elections published language for what will be Initiative 74, which, if approved by voters, would increase the city's minimum wage to $15 by 2019. The initiative's language was submitted by the local chapter of Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a national organization that advocates for better treatment of restaurant workers.

That would push beyond a wage hike approved by the D.C. Council last year that will see the minimum wage increase to $11.50 by 2016. The first portion of that increase took effect in July, when the lowest wage an employer can pay went from $8.25 to $9.50 per hour.

But according to ROC, the most important element of the proposed initiative deals with employees that take tips, like many of the workers in D.C.'s restaurants.

Under current law, tipped workers are paid a base wage of $2.77 an hour, but must make the going minimum wage of $9.50 when tips are included. If that doesn't happen, their employer has to make up the difference. Groups like ROC say laws like that are easy to ignore and difficult to enforce.

But if the initiative passes, tips would be decoupled from a worker's wages by 2024, after which tipped workers would be paid the same as other low-wage workers.

"[Restaurants are] one of the biggest, if not the biggest private sector employer in terms of an industry in the U.S. and have some of the absolutely lowest-paying jobs," says Meg Fosque, ROC's policy director.

She says that tipped workers are often left out of the debate when legislators debate increasing the minimum wage. While the original version of the bill raising D.C.'s minimum wage to $11.50 included a partial increase for tipped workers, it was taken out after objections were raised by restaurant and nightlife groups.

"What typically happens with these minimum wage bills is that tipped workers aren't a part of it, and in some cases there even a conscious effort to carve out tipped workers, keep them at a sub-minimum wage in order to move everyone else up," she says. "What's important to us is helping to include them in the conversation."

Fosque says that while Initiative 74 would be a means to address tipped workers, it would also seek to address concerns from social justice advocates that even the $11.50 minimum wage D.C. will get by 2016 won't be enough to help low-wage workers living in an increasingly expensive city.

According to an analysis by the Urban Institute, D.C.'s low-wage workers will see only modest increases in annual earnings under the planned wage hike. Thirty percent of the 41,000 workers would make more than $2,500 in additional wages per year, while the remaining workers would make less than that.

"We absolutely want to be part of and help move forward efforts to also increase the regular minimum wage and bring it closer to something that's going to be a living wage, not only for restaurant workers, but all workers," says Fosque.

Ever since Mayor Vincent Gray signed the minimum wage increase into law earlier this year, there have been various efforts to push the wage even higher through a ballot initiative. Draft language initially circulated by ROC called for an increase to $12.50, the same amount called for in a separate initiative backed by D.C. Working Families.

According to Delvone Michael, executive director of D.C. Working Families, his group's initiative was approved by Board of Elections during the summer but he has not started circulating petitions to collect the necessary signatures to put the measure on the ballot. He said he would wait until after the Nov. 4 general election to decide what to do, and said he would be open to helping the ROC push for a $15 minimum wage ballot initiative.

Fosque says that even though her group's ballot initiative is moving towards the next step — collecting signatures from five percent of the city's voters, or some 23,000 people — it's one of a number of tools ROC is using to push for higher wages for tipped workers.

"We're committed to trying to get legislation that would eliminate the tipped minimum wage, but it's possible that what the coalition will go forward with is the ballot initiative," she says.

If the group opts for a ballot initiative and gets the required signatures, it would be placed on the ballot for the next primary, general or citywide special election, which may not happen until 2016. And if voters approve the initiative, D.C. would follow Seattle in implementing a $15 minimum wage.

Still, either a bill or a ballot initiative would face opposition from some restaurant owners who say that their workers make more than most low-wage workers when tips are included.

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