After D.C. Council members Vincent Gray and Trayon White joined six other city lawmakers in voting to repeal Initiative 77, officials at the Center for American Progress in Northwest said the decision would hurt low-income workers of color.
Earlier this year, District residents voted in favor of Initiative 77, a measure that would gradually increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour for tipped workers.
Gray (Ward 7) and White (Wart 8) have said the measure would ultimately cost many their jobs because, among other problems, employers would balk at paying such wages.
“This is a sad day for democracy. Regardless of D.C. council members’ personal views on Initiative 77, the citizens of the District of Columbia overwhelmingly voted in favor of the measure back in June,” said Melissa Boteach, the senior vice president of the CAP’s Poverty to Prosperity Program.
“Repealing this measure sends a clear signal to D.C. voters, particularly low-income communities of color, that their votes don’t count. In an era where our democratic process is truly under threat, local legislative bodies ought to be setting an example — not defying their constituents,” Boteach said in a statement.
While stepped-up wage theft enforcement and increased sexual harassment training are welcome steps, they are addressing the symptoms and not the root problem, she said.
“When a tipped employee’s economic security is dependent on the whims of a boss or a customer, harassment and wage theft will flourish,” Boteach said. “This vote is a major setback, but it is not the final word. We will continue to advocate for a single fair wage in Washington, D.C., and across the country.”
Initiative 77 was overturned earlier this month by an 8-5 vote of the D.C. Council.
The measure, approved by D.C. voters in June, would have eliminated the city’s two-tier minimum wage system. It would have raised the minimum wage for tipped workers, such as waiters and bartenders, incrementally until their minimum wage matched that of other workers in the city by 2020.
WTOP reported that council members approving the repeal said the measure’s wording was misleading — people who voted for the measure, they said, likely didn’t realize they voted to cut the pay of many workers and place an undue burden on small businesses that would have to either raise prices or cut staff to pay for what would become much larger payrolls.
The council is still considering what’s called a compromise bill, which would aim to address issues that Initiative 77 sought to solve — such as sexual harassment and wage theft by employers who fail to make up the difference when tipped workers don’t earn minimum wage, as the employers are supposed to, according to WTOP.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson called the wording of Initiative 77 “misleading at best, dishonest at worst,” pointing out that several of the provisions of the bill presented as new were in fact current D.C. law anyway.
He also said that about 60 tipped workers — who “Initiative 77 purports to help” — had testified last month in support of repeal.
Addressing the criticism that repealing a voter initiative was anti-democratic, Mendelson said, “The committee views the initiative like any other piece of legislation, and the council amends laws all the time. If a law is a bad law, it should be amended or repealed; it does not matter if the law was adopted by Congress, the voters or the council.”
Council member Robert White, an at-large member, voted against Initiative 77 in June’s primary but on Tuesday opposed repealing it, saying, “I cannot and will not ignore the clear vote of the residents on this issue just because I disagree with the outcome.”
He agreed that the language was “deceptive,” but said, “I cannot assume that voters were ignorant or uninformed after the vigorous campaign waged by both sides.”
White added that “The voters are the source of any authority that I hold,” and that referenda should be repealed only in extreme cases.
He cited the lack of voting representation for D.C. in Congress, and the steps the federal government sometimes takes in D.C.’s affairs, as affronts to democracy, and said of overturning a ballot initiative, “What signal does it send?”