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Fight for D.C.’s Newly Approved Minimum Wage Hike Is Far From Over

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Restaurateurs explore repeal options, while supporters downplay talk of fleeing businesses

Customers dining at Michelin-starred Rose’s Luxury.
Rey Lopez/Eater DC

Passage of Initiative 77 on June 19 didn’t end the feud over how D.C.’s restaurant workers will get paid from now on, it just moved the battle back behind the scenes.

Opponents of the measure — including members of the D.C. City Council, which can still affect if and when the minimum wage hike actually happens — see low voter turnout as an opportunity to regain control of the issue. Supporters insist that all the doom and gloom scenarios floated by anxious business leaders are just talk.

Earlier this week D.C. voters approved a bill designed to pay all hospitality workers a flat rate of $15 per hour by 2025 and abolish the current tip-based pay structure. The new wage would be phased in gradually, starting with raising the current rate of $3.33 an hour for those eligible to collect tips to $4.50, and then adding $1.50 per hour annually until reaching the $15 mark.

James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef and restaurateur Aaron Silverman (Rose’s Luxury, Pineapple and Pearls, Little Pearl) opposed the measure before the vote. He’s holding off on making any changes for now, stressing that Initiative 77 hasn’t been signed into law — yet.

“Bottom line, our staff does not want this and we are supportive of our staff,” he tells Eater, adding that city leaders can still have an impact. “Ten of 13 elected officials are opposed to the measure as well as the mayor and the attorney general and we will ask them to amend or overturn the initiative.”

Restaurateur Jamie Leeds, who recently opened her fourth Hank’s Oyster Bar at the Wharf, is also in wait-and-see mode about implementation. But she says if it stands, company-wide changes will follow.

“This will absolutely change the way we approach our model and we’re going to have to take that into account when it comes to other financial commitments,” Leeds tells Eater. “The most important thing for me is to make sure all of my employees receive a livable wage, no matter what.”

Fellow restaurateur Ari Gejdenson, who told Eater earlier this year that the minimum wage issue had prompted him to start looking outside the District for future landing spot, laid out the “break points” at which the proposed wage hike would compel him to raise prices and cut staff for the Washington Business Journal. Gejdenson also told WBJ that he would likely abandon three leases we had been pursuing in D.C. and concentrate instead on a promising location in Maryland.

A spokesperson for the One Fair Wage campaign, which plans to pressure local lawmakers to move forward with Initiative 77 as is, says this it not the first time restaurant professionals on the losing side of an issue threatened to leave town.

“We heard much the same thing last decade around the smoking ban, but it was just talk. D.C.’s restaurants are stronger now than ever,” the campaign aide says.

Talk or not, D.C. City Council member Jack Evans told the Washington Post that the narrowly approved vote on is hardly a mandate. In his mind, the council has every right to override the “will of the 17 percent of people who showed up” if need be.

Rose's Luxury

717 8th Street Southeast, , DC 20003 (202) 742-3570 Visit Website

Little Pearl

921 Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast, , DC 20003 (202) 618-1868 Visit Website

Hank's Oyster Bar

818 North Saint Asaph Street, , VA 22314 (703) 739-4265 Visit Website

Pineapple and Pearls

715 8th Street Southeast, , DC 20003 (202) 595-7375 Visit Website