Tipped wage proponents get boost from restaurant leaders, including José Andrés Opponents say "high-dollar fundraising" matters little for their campaign to eliminate D.C.'s tipped wage.
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Tipped wage proponents get boost from restaurant leaders, including José Andrés

Tyrone Turner/DCist/WAMU

The campaign opposing Initiative 82, an upcoming ballot measure that would eliminate D.C.'s tipped wage, got a major fundraising boost from industry titans that include José Andrés' ThinkFoodGroup, according to recent reports from D.C.'s Office of Campaign Finance.

From July to September, the No to I82 committee received more than $91,000 in contributions, leaving the campaign with more than $52,000 in cash on hand.

By contrast, the campaign for eliminating the tipped wage, the DC Committee to Build a Better Restaurant Industry, received about $2,720 in contributions within the same period. The campaign has just under $5,500 cash on hand.

Contributors who gave $10,000, in addition to ThinkFoodGroup, are Silver Diner Development LLC, Great American Restaurants Inc., Thompson Hospitality, Glory Days Grill, and Chef Geoff's. The largest contribution in the report came from Barcelona Wine Bar, at $20,000.

Supporters of I-82 argue that it would guarantee a higher minimum wage and level the playing field for tipped workers whose hourly wages can, under current law, be well below minimum wage as long as the gap is made up with tips. They add that it would give a boost to staff who are working back-of-house jobs, such as food runners, bouncers, and barbacks, who typically receive less in tips than servers.

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Many of the opponents are restaurant owners who say that Initiative 82 would increase labor costs and force them to cut down on staff and charge customers more money. They also argue that workers would receive less in tips and possibly earn less overall, despite higher guaranteed wages.

Geoff Tracy, co-owner of Chef Geoff's, told DCist/WAMU that he has been in the restaurant industry for 22 years and that tipped wages work well for both employers and employees.

"We're just trying to preserve the system," he said. "They're trying to solve a problem that doesn't need fixing."

Great American Restaurants Inc., Thompson Hospitality, Silver Diner Development LLC, Glory Days Grill, José Andrés' ThinkFoodGroup, and Barcelona Wine Bar did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Ryan O'Leary, a lead supporter of I-82 and a tipped restaurant worker in D.C., isn't fazed, saying "high-dollar fundraising" is not important to his campaign.

"Tipped workers don't exactly have tons of money to be throwing around like restaurant owners clearly do," O'Leary said. "They can go ahead and waste all the money that they want, but I'm confident that this is going to pass in November and that it'll become law."

In 2018, voters approved a similar measure, Initiative 77, but it was repealed by the D.C. Council. O'Leary is hopeful that the new council will be more supportive.

He noted that opponents have spent much of the fundraising money trying to keep Initiative 82 off of this year's ballot. Despite costing over $200,000, that effort was unsuccessful. To date No to I82 has received more than $400,000.

On the other hand, the DC Committee to Build a Better Restaurant Industry has raised just over $312,000 to date. The majority of that total comes from one major contributor, George Soros's Open Society Foundations which donated $206,000, but the campaign has dozens more small-scale contributors than No to I82, according to DCist/WAMU's analysis of contribution filings on the Office of Campaign Finance.

Opponents of the previous iteration of the bill, Initiative 77, spent over $420,000. Some of the same restaurants that contributed to No to I82 contributed to the Save Our Tip System Initiative 77 and NO2DC77 (both were committees opposed to Initiative 77)roughly four years ago, including Silver Diner Development LLC and ThinkFoodGroup.

ThinkFoodGroup's contribution raised some eyebrows as Andrés has called for eliminating tipped wage in New York. Andrés, who is known for his humanitarian work, told the Washington City Paper that he supported New York's proposal, but not Initiative 77, because the New York plan was "more well rounded" and included a "recovery surcharge for restaurants." He has also noted that he wasn't sure how raising tipped wages would help even the disparity between pay for front- and back-of-house workers.

"I would love some clarity from José Andrés and his team on that," O'Leary said.

Amanda Michelle Gomez and Martin Austermuhle contributed reporting.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.

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