A controversial Department of Labor rule that critics
alleged would have allowed employers to steal their employees’ tips was stymied last month, but not before the department suppressed evidence of the potential
damage to working families.
The rule, proposed in December, is a reversal of an Obama-era directive that ensured tips remained the property of the workers who earn them.
The majority of the rule is still likely to be implemented. It would allow employers to pool tips earned by their employees, like bartenders and servers, and disperse them as they wish. For example, employers could share tip money with non-tipped workers like cooks and dishwashers, provided the servers and bartenders make the full minimum wage.
Or they could have just kept the tips for themselves – at least until Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington stepped in.
Before Murray’s last-minute fix, New York Magazine correspondent Eric Levitz argued that the White House was complicit in the deceitful process. “All available evidence suggests that the White House knows its proposal will take billions of dollars from workers and give it to restaurant owners and managers — and that this is not a bug of the rule, or even a feature, but rather the entire purpose,” he wrote.
The Economic Policy Institute estimated that working people could lose $5.8 billion a year because of the employer-slanted provisions and that the take-home pay of back-of-the-house or other non-tipped workers would remain largely unchanged.
The Labor Department was required to include its own analysis of the proposal, estimating what workers would make under the new pooling standard. But according to Bloomberg Law, that requirement was waived and the analysis that the department completed was withheld, likely because it too showed that workers could lose billions in wages.
Overriding the requirement is a rare move and one that EPI referred to in its official comment as a “brazen dereliction of duty that can only be remedied by the immediate withdrawal of the proposed rule.”
Sen. Murray, who is the ranking member of the Senate’s labor committee, helped prevent outright tip-stealing by inserting a partial remedy into the government’s omnibus spending bill on March 23.
Working with Labor Department Secretary Alexander Acosta, she included a provision in the bill that amends the Fair Labor Standards Act to prohibit employers and managers from pocketing tips, requiring that the money remain among non-management employees. It would also allow workers to sue to recover stolen tips and win added damages, reported the Huffington Post.
“I’m pleased that Secretary Acosta listened, reversed course, and worked with me on legislation to make sure that big businesses can’t steal their workers’ tips” Murray said in a statement. “For the millions of workers who rely on their tips to pay their bills and support their families, most of whom are women, this change comes as a sigh of relief.”
Employers could, however, still require that tips given to front-of-the-house staff be pooled and shared with the back-of-the-house, allowing restaurants and other tip-reliant industries to pay back-of-the-house workers less than the minimum wage.
The pro-management move by the Trump administration follows an increasingly long list of similar activity. In December, the National Labor Relations Board issued a series of decisions that make it harder for employees to join together and bargain collectively.
The Labor Department has also delayed a rule designed to help people better save for retirement and is opening the door to possibly reversing a rule that shortens union election time, making it harder to hold a fair election. The administration has also undone a number of safety regulations and reporting requirements on worker injuries.
“Working people in these industries rely on those tips to support their families and taking that money away would cause more harm than good,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “That’s what the data showed and that’s what should have guided the Labor Department’s decision.”