By Akira Kyles, Special to the AFRO

Many advocates and opponents of Initiative 77 showed up at the Wilson Building September 17 to witness the D.C. Council hold a hearing on Bill 22-913, the “Tipped Workers Fairness Amendment Act of 2018,” which would repeal the voter approved Initiative 77.

Initiative 77 was proposed to get rid of the tipping wage and give all tipped wage workers in D.C. the same minimum wage of $15 by 2026. The measure was passed by 55 percent of voters on June 19, according to the D.C. board of elections.

For supporters of the initiative, it is seen as a race, gender and economic justice issue.

Jairo, a native Colombian who asked to keep his last name anonymous due to his job, knows firsthand the hardships of working under a tipped wage from previously working as a delivery driver in D.C. for Papa John’s.

“If you are White American, we have this problem in our job, they receive better tips than we’re receiving because of the accent,” said Jairo. “The same customers that are regular weekly customers, we’ll deliver there and when we were there we’d receive maybe 10 percent tips. A White guy gets even more money; it’s not always but sometimes.”

Latrice Vincent, representative of Stone Black Development, a community organization, said the hearing would wake people up to the injustice they were facing.

“It’s completely ridiculous how we’re led to believe that this is a democratic country with democratic processes, but as we see every day, all day, that that is not the case,” said Vincent. “So, this is just another example of that and hopefully people are waking up to it.”

Diana Ramirez, director of the Restaurant Opportunity Center of D.C. (ROC), supports Initiative 77 in hopes that a higher minimum wage will help lower female tipped wage workers having to tolerate sexual harassment for tips.

“Sexual harassment claims before the EEOC are twice as high in the restaurant industry than any other industry,” said Ramirez. “That’s because women then have to put up with inappropriate and unwanted behavior to make that tip. You have to put up with the cat calling and the touching and the pinching and the front hugs. Even if we had 100 percent enforcement of the tipped wage, women would still have to put up with sexual harassment to make that money.”

Sheena Wills, a bartender for DC9 Nightclub is against the initiative, not only because she thinks it’s a bad law but also because she believes that voters were misled into supporting it.

“The groups leading and pushing the effort for Initiative 77 used so many gaslighting and race-baiting techniques in ads and campaigns to where White friends of mine, who were wearing buttons and t-shirts-before they could even talk to somebody to give their opinion to say why they were against it- were called racist, were called Trump supporters, were yelled at were harassed simply because they had an opinion on something that affects their livelihood directly,” said Wills. “I was not okay with that.”

Symone Wilson, also a bartender at DC9 Nightclub, is against the initiative as well because she doesn’t think that it’s practical for the D.C. area.

“At best this bill is incredibly short sighted to take into account any number of factors that affect the D.C. area. D.C. is a very unique market; the majority of our businesses are independently owned so we don’t have these big franchises that can easily pay people $15 an hour,” said Wilson.

According to Wills and Wilson, even though ROC claimed to advocate for tipped wage workers, they didn’t really talk to them and get their perspective like the D.C. Council did.

“Even if they want to pass in two years from now, go back to the drawing board, actually talk to tipped workers, get our input, see what we would like to see change and then bring it back,” said Wilson.

Some main points Wills and Wilson would like to see addressed for tipped wage workers are a firm definition on who a tipped employee is, stricter enforcement for tipped workers being taken advantage of and for their input to be considered on legislation affecting tipped workers.

The hearing focused on three main questions: 1) Do the District’s tipped workers deserve higher base wages? 2) Should business owners and operators be helped, who may face hardship as a result of Initiative 77? 3) Should the Council overturn the will of the voters of the District of Columbia?

D.C. Councilman David Grosso believes tipped workers deserve an increase in their base wages.

“No two employees are the same. There are myriad factors, such as type of establishment, race, and gender that influence how much a person may earn in tips. While there is little we can do to modify patron behavior, I think we can all agree that no District employee should be subject to this volatility and uncertainty in their earnings,” said Grosso during the hearing.