Thea Bryan is a single mother putting herself through graduate school. She spends her days at an unpaid internship for her social work program. At nights, she bartends for tips.
Sometimes, the pay is lucrative. But around October, her work — and money — started to lag. “When business is slow, as it has been for me lately, I don’t get paid. The managers get paid, the kitchen staff gets paid, the dishwasher gets paid. I don’t,” Bryan said.
The Department of Labor could make things much worse for Bryan. Under a proposed new rule, she might have to hand her tips over to her bosses.
The new rule would let minimum wage employers take over the tips that customers leave for their servers. That’s right: If you serve, your boss would get your tips.
Bryan shared her story at a press briefing put on by Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United on Dec. 12. “Why is there such an effort to keep people from making decent wages?” Bryan asked. “First they don’t want to pay an decent hourly wage if you get tips. Now they want to take your tips if you make a decent hourly wage!”
The National Restaurant Association, also known as “the other NRA,” frames the proposed rule as a way to allow for tip pooling, to end pay disparities between the front and back of the house.
But ROC United and other groups point out that there’s no provision to ensure that tips stay in the hands of workers and not their bosses.
In fact, the language in proposal suggests that employers could allocate tips to make capital improvements or lower menu prices — or they could just pocket the tips themselves.
That transfer of money from workers up to their bosses is no small change. If the rule is enacted, the Economic Policy Institute says that employers would take $5.8 billion in tips from workers, an estimate they call conservative.
The restaurant industry is already rife with wage theft.
Employers of tipped workers are among the worst offenders in minimum wage violations, especially due to the sub-minimum tipped wage. Employers can pay tipped workers as little as $2.13 an hour as long as their tips bring them up to the full minimum wage.
But enforcement is lax. Bryan says she’s gone two weeks without getting paid a minimum wage, and hasn’t been able to get her employer to make up the difference.
Some employers already steal tips, as ROC United co-director Saru Jayaraman pointed out. ROC United has surveyed nearly 10,000 restaurant workers, Jayaraman said, and one in five reported that employers have taken a portion of their tips, even though that’s currently not legal.
The Department of Labor is already feeling the pressure. Jayaraman said tens of thousands of people submitted comments against the rule in the first three days alone.
The battle over tips is only adding to Bryan’s stress over wages. “My son is 11 years old,” she said. “I would like to know how much money I will be making any given month so I can enroll him in after school activities and maybe take him to the movies every once in a while, or pay my rent.”
That’s why Bryan’s not limiting her advocacy to the fight over owning tips. She says she’d like to see all people in the service industry get a livable minimum wage, just like any other worker would expect. “I’m a restaurant professional,” she declared, “and I deserve a professional wage.”
Negin Owliaei is a researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies. She co-edits Inequality.org, where an earlier version of this op-ed appeared.