Beset by ongoing legal challenges from the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, grassroots efforts to increase Washington, D.C.’s minimum wage to $15 by 2020 have stalled for the foreseeable future.
Launched by a coalition of both local and national labor and social justice oriented advocacy groups this past April, including Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and Working Families Organization, the campaign seeks to eliminate the current subminimum wage paid to tipped employees by establishing a ballot measure for the 2016 election. The measure aims to create a $15-per-hour wage floor by 2020 and ensure tipped restaurant workers the same $15 wage floor by 2025.
At present, the minimum hourly wage in the District, currently set at $10.50, will reach $11.50 by July 2016, per the Minimum Wage Amendment Act of 2013 that raised the rate from $8.25 per hour in annual increments.
The coalition’s efforts for
a $15 wage floor, more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25, are not without precedent. Several West Coast cities, led by Seattle and San Francisco, have pledged to transition to $15 minimums by 2020, the latter of whom included a clause in its proposal to raise the minimum wage of tipped restaurant workers as well. However, Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Harry Wingo filed a civil suit against the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics in August citing language within the measure that may imply, incorrectly, that the increase would apply to nonservice workers. In addition to the measure’s wording, Wingo takes issue with possible job losses as a result of the raised wage, particularly for government workers and contractors who would not benefit from the raise, suggesting that the ballot measure may violate D.C.’s longstanding Home Rule Act, which carries provisions for District spending on services. The Board of Elections and Ethics approved the measure’s language in July, but Wingo’s lawsuit aims to stop it from making its way to the November 2016 ballot.
Wingo said private-sector job growth could be impaired as a result of raised wages.
“Increasing the cost of doing business in the District is the biggest threat to local companies,” Wingo said in a statement on the Chamber of Commerce’s website. “It’s important to future job growth and our economic vitality not to adversely impact these establishments.”
A 2015 survey of District employers published by the Chamber of Commerce indicated that a majority of local business owners would not hire more employees should the minimum wage rise to $15, a potential detriment to local business.
Nevertheless, Director of Restaurant Opportunities Center D.C. Gaby Madriz explained that the group hopes to move forward with the November 2016 ballot measure as soon as the suit’s conclusion will allow.
“Right now we’re in a period [where] we’ve filed our initial motion and we basically just have to go back and forth,” Madriz said. “We’re hoping to have a final hearing in mid-November.”
Madriz said that despite the difficult legal battle, she believes the payoffs of an increased minimum wage will be worth it for many low-income workers and businesses.
“I think [a minimum wage increase] would really help go a long way for folks not to have to be constantly struggling with the rising prices in D.C.,” Madriz said. “In the long run we do believe that the trend that we’ve seen in other places of the local economy growing [would continue].”
Should Wingo lose the lawsuit, the coalition will begin a new campaign in January to obtain 24,000 signatures of D.C.-registered voters to place the measure on the ballot. Seventy percent of registered voters said they supported the measure, according to The Washington Post.
An increase in the minimum wage would also raise prices for products sold by companies and groups on campus. In the past, Students of Georgetown, Inc. typically increases its prices by 5 cents following increases in the minimum wage, according to Corp CEO Marnie Wallach (NHS ’16).
“Over the last two years, and continuing as the minimum wage continues to increase, we’ve had to work to adjust prices,” Wallach said. “[This is] in order to account for the increase in wage expenses.”
However, Wallach said that she would expect a greater price increase if the minimum wage were to rise to $15 per hour.
She added that price increases are driven not only by salary increases for Corp employees, but also by vendors’ increasing costs. As vendors pay workers more, costs increase to maintain profit levels, which trickles down to Corp prices.
“A D.C.-wide increase [on] wages not only affects our company, but also most of our vendors,” Wallach said. “As they raise prices to account for their own increased wages, we’ve had to monitor that and do the same.”
Following previous wage hikes in the District, including, most recently, a July 2014 graduated wage hike from $8.25 to $9.50, University departments had incorporated the anticipated hike and its effects on student employees into departmental budgets, with some departments raising the idea of increasing the number of student employees hired on federal work-study, to account for the change.
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