Voters in the District of Columbia on June 19, 2018 approved an initiative (Initiative 77) that would incrementally increase the minimum cash wage for tipped workers to $15.00 per hour by July 1, 2025, and starting July 1, 2026 to the same amount as the then-minimum wage for all other workers, effectively eliminating the tip credit. If the initiative takes effect, the District would join seven states that do not have a separate minimum wage for tipped workers, i.e., Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.

The D.C. Council previously enacted legislation raising the minimum cash wage for tipped workers to $3.33 on July 1, 2017; $3.89 on July 1, 2018; $4.45 on July 1, 2019; and $5.00 on July 1, 2020, consistent with increases in the general minimum wage to $12.50, $13.25, $14.00, and $15.00 that will take effect on the same dates. Each year thereafter, the minimum wage will increase in proportion to the annual average increase in the CPI-U for the Washington area. D.C. Code §32-10003.

The voter initiative would change the minimum cash wage for tipped workers to $4.50 on July 1, 2018; $6.00 on July 1, 2019; $7.50 on July 1, 2020; $9.00 on July 1, 2021; $10.50 on July 1, 2022; $12.00 on July 1, 2023; $13.50 on July 1, 2024; $15.00 on July 1, 2025; and to whatever the minimum wage then is for other workers on July 1, 2026. These provisions will not apply to employees of the District of Columbia, or employees performing services under contracts with the District of Columbia.

It is not yet clear whether the initiative will become law, at least it its present form. It passed by only 55 percent in an election in which turnout was only 16.7 percent. Before it becomes law, it must clear review by the D.C. Council, which could amend or overturn it. So far, the measure has faced public opposition from Mayor Muriel Bowser and a majority (eight) of the D.C. Council, as well as many restaurant owners, wait staff and bartenders, who fear it will increase direct labor costs, force staffing reductions, and significantly reduce the amount of tips received. Both the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington and the separate “Save our Tips” campaign already have stated that they will take their fight to the Council. If the Council approves the measure, it must then clear a thirty-legislative-day review period by the Congress. At best, the initiative is not likely to take effect until sometime in the fall of 2018.

In the meantime, employers currently taking the tip credit should note the increase in the minimum for tipped employees to $3.89 (and for all other employees to $13.25) taking effect on July 1, 2018. Notably, supporters of the initiative have stated that they will not seek retroactive effect of the initiative’s July 1, 2018 increase to $4.50.

[Read the update—July 16, 2018—“Proposed D.C. Council Legislation Puts Voter-Approved Elimination of Tip Credit Into Question.”]

In a much anticipated filing with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal in State of Nevada, et a. v. United States Department of Labor, et al, the United States Department of Labor has made clear that it is not defending the Obama Administration’s overtime rule that would more than double the threshold for employees to qualify for most overtime exemptions. However, the Department has taken up the appeal filed by the previous Administration to reverse the preliminary injunction issued blocking implementation of the rule, requesting that the Court overturn as erroneous the Eastern District of Texas’ finding, and reaffirm the Department’s authority to establish a salary level test. And the Department has requested that the Court not address the validity of the specific salary level set by the 2016 final rule because the Department intends to revisit the salary level threshold through new rulemaking.

The litigation stems from action taken by the Department in May 2016 to issue a final rule that would have increased the minimum salary threshold for most overtime exemptions under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) from $23,660 per year to $47,476 per year. The rule was scheduled to become effective on December 1, 2016, but a federal judge issued a temporary injunction blocking its implementation just days beforehand.

Section 13(a) of the FLSA exempts from the Act’s minimum wage and overtime pay requirements “any employee employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional [(“EAP”)] capacity * * * [specifically providing,] as such terms are defined and delimited from time to time by regulations of the Secretary [of Labor].” 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1). To be subject to this exemption, a worker must (1) be paid on a salary basis; (2) earn a specified salary level; and (3) satisfy a duties test.  In enjoining the 2016 rule, the District Court for the Eastern District of Texas reasoned that the salary-level component of this three-part test is unlawful, concluding that “Congress defined the EAP exemption with regard to duties, which does not include a minimum salary level,” and that the statute “does not grant the Department the authority to utilize a salary-level test.”

In seeking reversal of the preliminary injunction, the Department has argued that the Fifth Circuit expressly rejected the claim that the salary-level test is unlawful in Wirtz v. Mississippi Publishers Corp. In Wirtz, the Court reasoned that “[t]he statute gives the Secretary broad latitude to ‘define and delimit’ the meaning of the term ‘bona fide executive * * * capacity,” and he rejected the contention that “the minimum salary requirement is arbitrary or capricious.”  Further, the Department argues that every circuit to consider the issue has upheld the salary-level test as a permissible component of the EAP regulations.

By many accounts, the Department’s recently-appointed Labor Secretary, Alexander Acosta, has made clear that he does not think the salary level should be at $47,476 per year, but rather set at a more reasonable level between $30,000 and $35,000 per year. While Secretary Acosta may disagree with the salary level of the 2016 rule, the Department’s brief seems to make clear that he wants to ensure that he has the authority to set any salary threshold.

In issuing the preliminary injunction, the District Court did not address the validity of the salary level threshold set by the 2016 rule. Because the injunction rested on the legal conclusion that the Department lacks authority to set a salary level, it may be reversed on the ground that the legal ruling was erroneous. As a result, by requesting that the Fifth Circuit not address the validity of the salary level set by the 2016 rule, should the Court reverse the preliminary injunction without ruling on the salary level’s validity, it is unclear whether the 2016 rule will immediately go into effect pending new rulemaking. Employers need to stay tuned.