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D.C. Voters Approve $15 Minimum Wage for Tipped Workers

Passage of Initiative 77 could lead local restaurateurs to pursue ventures elsewhere

Customers paying for a food at a restaurant.
Steve Mason/Getty Images

D.C. residents on June 19 narrowly approved a hard-fought ballot measure that will raise the minimum wage for all workers to $15 by 2025 — and may drive local restaurateurs outside the city.

Ian Hilton, a prolific businessman who opened over a half-dozen new D.C. restaurants and bars (Crimson Diner; Crimson Rooftop; Crimson Whiskey Bar; Brighton; Bar Roubaix; Gaslight Tavern; Players Club) over the past 12 months, tells Eater that if the D.C. City Council does not overturn the law — which remains a possibility — his empire building will move outside the District.

“We will focus further expansion to Northern Virginia,” Hilton says, adding that he expects the impact of the new pay structure in D.C. “will be pretty hefty.” Fellow restaurateur Ari Gejdenson floated a similar idea in January, although he seemed more inclined to “explore Maryland for a bit.”

Their concerns are apparently not shared by a majority of D.C. voters; 55 percent of those who headed to the polls endorsed Initiative 77, while 45 percent cast ballots against the measure. As it stands now, the bill would raise the existing minimum wage for workers eligible to collect tips from $3.33 an hour to $4.50 per hour in July 2018, and then add an additional $1.50 per hour each year until reaching $15 per hour in 2025. From then on, the lower tip-based pay rate would disappear and all hourly workers would earn the same amount. A handful of states have enacted similar changes.

The campaigning by pro-Initiative 77 group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROCU), and opponents the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington (RAMW), was intense. Both sides plastered posters all over the city, trotted out celebrity endorsements, and lobbied hard right up until the last minute. The One Fair Wage campaign thanked voters for their support, and urged local officials to honor the public’s decision — citing an internal poll tracking the varying degrees to which those contacted would be “concerned” if their council member voted to overturn the bill or somehow blocked Initiative 77 from becoming law.

Jack Mills, a bartender at popular Adams Morgan bar Jack Rose and a member of the Save Our Tips campaign, said the bill’s passage will have repercussions. “As soon as it goes into effect, employers grappling with a shocking rise in labor costs will begin the process of making some hard decisions, which will involve menu pricing, staffing levels and how gratuities are collected,” he said in a prepared statement.

James Beard Foundation Award winning writer and former Washingtonian restaurant critic Todd Kliman concurs, warning that dining out may soon become a luxury many will not be able to afford.

Congressional lawmakers now have 30 legislative days to review — and possibly amend — the legislation before it becomes law. And the D.C. Council can seek to overturn it; many of the council members, along with Mayor Muriel Bowser, openly oppose the measure.

Eater contacted other local restaurateurs about how they plan deal with minimum wage hike and will update this story as they respond.

Players Club

1400 14th Street Northwest, , DC 20005 (202) 986-4730 Visit Website

Gaslight Tavern

2012 9th Street NW, Washington, DC 20001 202-864-6272

Jack Rose Dining Saloon

2007 18th Street Northwest, , DC 20009 (202) 588-7388 Visit Website

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