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D.C. Voters Back Measure To Raise Minimum Wage For Tipped Workers

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Voters in Washington, D.C., have approved a ballot measure that would eliminate tipped wages. This initiative is part of a national campaign to raise restaurant workers' pay across the country. NPR's Shannon Van Sant reports.

SHANNON VAN SANT, BYLINE: Just over half of D.C. voters pulled the lever for Initiative 77, which could end the tipped wages for restaurant servers, parking attendants and nail salon workers. Employers may have to pay them full minimum wage directly. The measure has divided D.C.'s restaurant industry with employees who make a good living through tips opposing the initiative and others who struggle under the current system supporting it. In the runup to the vote, Eric Catalano (ph) told member station WAMU that when he worked for tips, some nights he went home empty-handed.

ERIC CATALANO: But nobody complained about it. Nobody said anything because you wanted to keep your job.

VAN SANT: Tipped workers are currently paid 3.33 an hour with the assumption that they'll make the full minimum wage on top of that in tips or supplemented by their employers. Under Initiative 77, that could change, with the tipped wage gradually being phased out through 2026. The New York advocacy group behind the ballot measure is organizing similar campaigns in New York and Michigan. Many restaurant owners oppose the measure, saying it will force some restaurants to close, lose employees or scale back on hours. Dave (ph), a D.C. bartender who only gave his first name, spoke with member station WAMU. He likes the initiative. He says it's about protecting the most vulnerable.

DAVE: The tip system is inherently exploitative, like, displaces risk from owners to workers.

VAN SANT: Some employees, especially women, say they endure harassment in order to earn enough tips. And Dave says the system creates disparity among workers, benefiting some over others.

DAVE: That's going to privilege native English speakers above all. And there are studies showing that tipped rates are higher for white workers than people of color, for example. So the entire argument for a tip system seems like an anti-worker argument.

VAN SANT: Support for Initiative 77 was highest in D.C.'s neighborhoods with predominantly African-American populations. The measure will now go to Congress for a 30-day review and can then still be changed or overturned by the D.C. City Council, most of whom oppose it. Shannon Van Sant, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.