D.C. voters just raised the tipped minimum wage, but the fight isn’t over yet

Supporters are already afraid the measure will be overturned.

A waiter carries food out of a kitchen in the Salvadoran and Latin American restaurant Lauriol Plaza in Washington, DC (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)
A waiter carries food out of a kitchen in the Salvadoran and Latin American restaurant Lauriol Plaza in Washington, DC (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Voters in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to pass a ballot measure to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and include tipped workers. D.C. now joins eight states that have established a single minimum wage, and its passage makes the city a bellwether for states currently considering tipped wage increases of their own — including New York, Michigan, and Massachusetts.

Initiative 77 passed 55 to 44 percent, despite a well-funded campaign from the restaurant industry to pressure workers and restaurant patrons to vote against it.

But supporters are already afraid the measure will be overturned. The wage increase will phase in gradually through 2026, and the DC Council can repeal it at any time. The majority of Council members, along with DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, are on the record opposing the wage increase.

Even before the initiative passed, At Large Council Member David Grosso told restaurant owners that overturning the measure was “an option.” And Tuesday evening, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson declined to say whether he would let the law go into effect — saying he wanted to “let the dust settle.”


Opponents of the measure have claimed that workers themselves are opposed to the initiative going into law. Indeed, many high-earning tipped workers have supported the restaurant industry’s campaign against the measure. But others who stand to benefit more from the change — including low-wage tipped workers outside the restaurant industry — have been left out of the media coverage of the initiative.

And the results of Tuesday’s vote tell an important story. Six of the district’s eight wards voted against the initiative, while the measure garnered the most support in the city’s predominantly African-American wards. As City Lab’s David Montgomery found, the vote was extremely stratified by both race and class. Precincts with the highest poverty rates and highest proportion of nonwhite voters voted overwhelmingly in favor of the initiative.

Research has shown that tipping practices are racially discriminatory in practice. Tips for black servers average 15 to 25 percent less than their white counterparts, according to one study.


Overturning referendums has been increasingly common tool — mostly among conservative lawmakers seeking to block progressive policy. Last year, the Republican-controlled legislature in Maine overturned a similar wage increase. And Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) is currently appealing the state’s ballot measure to expand Medicaid.

In Arizona, Republican lawmakers tried to stop a $12 minimum wage increase by claiming it was unconstitutional, an argument the Arizona Supreme Court unanimously rejected. And in Oklahoma, House Republicans voted to overturn a criminal justice reform bill to downgrade drug possession charges to misdemeanors.

It’s been less common in Democratic cities and states. The last time D.C.’s council passed a bill repealing a ballot measure was in 2001, after DC voters overwhelmingly voted to impose term limits on elected officials six years earlier.

D.C. voters may have weighed in, but the fight to raise the city’s tipped minimum wage is far from over.

Jeremy Slevin is the Director of Antipoverty Advocacy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund (CAPAF). ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed at CAPAF.