Low-wage workers in Washington, DC might see a significant increase in their pay, thanks to national labor rights group Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC).

This month, the DC Board of Elections approved language submitted by a local chapter of ROC to raise the minimum wage in the District to $15/hour by 2019. The measure, which will be called Initiative 74, also proposes to eliminate the “tipped minimum wage,” and extend the minimum wage increase to tipped workers by 2024. This means that tipped workers, who are often left out of state or federal increases to the minimum wage, would be paid the same as all other hourly wage workers.

The proposed $15 an hour is a major step forward from the wage increase currently in progress. In July, legislation passed by Mayor Vince Gray went into effect, raising the minimum wage from $8.25 to $9.50 an hour. Mayor Gray’s legislation will continue to increase minimum wage for the next two years until it reaches $11.50.

Meg Fosque, the policy director of ROC, says that the legislation has one major gap: it does not include tipped workers, who make $2.77 per hour under the present law. “[Restaurants are] one of the biggest, if not the biggest private sector employer in terms of an industry in the U.S. and have some of the absolutely lowest-paying jobs,” says Fosque.

Currently, in DC employers must ensure that tipped workers’ pay, including tips, adds up to $9.50 an hour, or pay the difference. But ROC and other labor rights groups say that this rarely happens in reality. Seven states recognize this as a problem, and have already made laws to ensure that tipped workers are paid minimum wage. Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of ROC, says that it is especially important for lessening a server’s burden to please. “There is no other industry where we let employers allow other people to pay their workers,” she said.

In pushing for action to increase the minimum wage, Fosque also pointed out the need to ensure that the minimum wage represented a fair wage. “We absolutely want to be part of and help move forward efforts to also increase the regular minimum wage and bring it closer to something that’s going to be a living wage, not only for restaurant workers, but all workers.”

The fight for $15 has been spearheaded by fast food workers, organized all around the country. Michelle Chen, reporting on this movement in the Fall 2013 issue of Ms. magazine, noted that the fast food workers had “broadened the horizons for low-wage labor organizing.” She continued, “Its media splash has put the face of today’s low-wage worker – one that’s less white, more female and struggling harder than ever – into the foreground of public consciousness.”

Nearly two-thirds of all minimum wage workers are women. Many are people of color. Tipped workers are also largely women: more than 70 percent of all servers are female, according to ROC.

“Workers trying to make ends meet deserve a fair wage,” said Feminist Majority Foundation Director of Policy & Research. “Raising the minimum wage for all workers, including tipped workers, will not only help close the gender wage gap, it will give women more opportunity for economic security.”

For Initiative 74 to make it onto the DC ballot, ROC will now have to collect signatures from five percent of the city’s voters. If the group collects the required signatures, the measure may make it to the ballot in 2016.

With federal legislation stalled in Congress, workers have looked to state and local governments to act on raising the minimum wage. Hawaii, Maryland, and Seattle, Washington recently raised their minimum wage, and this fall, several state – including Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota – will be voting on ballot measures to decide whether to raise their minimum wage.

Election Day is November 4.

Media Resources: ROCUnited.org; WAMU News 10/22/14; Washington City Paper 6/30/14; Washington Post 5/25/14; Feminist Newswire 5/8/14; The White House 3/14; Ms. Magazine Fall 2013; FeministCampus.org

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