Beefs Against Eliminating the Tip Credit Wage Need Heavy Dose of Salt

The restaurant industry, less its large fast food component has led the charge against any increase in the tip credit wage — and so, of course, against proposals to eliminate it.

We saw this again — and its relative success — when the DC Council, with the Mayor’s consent decided to raise the tip credit wage to just $5.00 an hour by 2020, rather than run the high risk that voters would approve $15 an hour for all District workers local labor laws can cover.

Seems that the Council hearkened, as it has in the past to the metro area restaurant association, the members it rallied and some tipped workers they’d panicked, if not coerced into testifying.

We’ve been round this barn before. And we’ll go round it again — perhaps as soon as next year in the District and almost surely elsewhere. Perhaps even in Congress, given the draft Democratic party platform, though a wipe-out of the tip credit wage nationwide seems a distant prospect.

Here then, as promised, are the tip credit supporters’ major arguments — and why we should take them with a heavy dose of salt.

Supporters of the extremely low tip credit wage claim that restaurant workers are already doing just fine. The National Restaurant Association, for example, says that median wait server earnings range from $16 to $22 an hour.

No doubt some servers make a pretty good living. Here in the District, we’ve got a restaurant where a meal costs as much as $275 per person, drinks not included.

Even a teetotaling party of four would conventionally add $220 to the bill. Assuming the person who waited on them got the whole tip, as we shouldn’t, s/he’d earn many times the minimum wage.

Servers at pricey restaurants are obviously not typical. The median hourly wage for tipped wait servers in the District was $9.58 an hour, according tothe latest Bureau of Labor Statistics estimate.

This, say the National Employment Law Project and Restaurant Opportunities Council United, includes tips. If so, nearly half the tipped wait servers earned less than needed to lift a three-person family over the federal poverty line, assuming (again, as we shouldn’t) a full-time, year round job.

Restaurant spokespersons also claim that employees will earn less if not paid the tip credit wage because customers won’t leave tips anymore — the old “harm those intended to help” argument we usually hear when the issue is a minimum wage increase.

Yet wait servers and bartenders in states that have no tip credit wage still generally receive tips, NELP and ROC United report. They, in fact, earn 20% more than those in states with the lowest federally-permissible tip credit wage — and 12.5% more in states that, like the District, have a higher tip credit wage.

Those who reported the highest median tips worked in San Francisco, which hasn’t had a tip credit wage in at least 25 years. So customers clearly don’t give up tipping — or even, it would seem, scrimp on tips — when they know that all the extra they pay goes to the people who serve them.

Business interests don’t dwell overmuch on how eliminating — or even raising — the tip credit wage would erode workers’ bottom lines, however. It’s their own bottom lines they focus on.

Policymakers get an earful about very low profit margins — how restaurant owners barely make out as it is, how small businesses (which many sit-down restaurants aren’t) will fold if their labor costs rise.

Here again, we can look to states with no tip credit — assuming, as I think we can, that employment indicates industry growth.

Restaurants and other businesses in what the Bureau of Labor Statistics terms the leisure and hospitality sector have expanded more in non-tip credit states than others, the Economic Policy Institute reports.

The National Restaurant Association sees no reversal of the trend ahead. On the contrary, it projects a 10.1% increase in California’s restaurant employment over the next 10 years. The Nevada industry can look forward to needing 12.9% more workers, lack of a tip credit wage notwithstanding.

Here in the District, elected officials got another warning. Businesses that can’t pay sub-minimum wages anymore will move to Virginia, where they still can — and pay only $7.25 an hour to non-tipped workers too.

How likely does that seem for restaurants, bars, hair salons and the like? They believe their customers will travel long distances, rather than patronize conveniently-located competitors? They believe they won’t have to compete with suburban business that have developed loyal customers?

But I suppose it’s fair to imagine that some businesses couldn’t turn a profit if they had to pay all workers at least the minimum wage. Perhaps they need to change their business model — charge somewhat higher prices, for example, or tack on a service charge, as some restaurants already do.

Or they could automate functions now performed by human beings. Industry spokespersons say that’s exactly what restaurants will do — another harm to those intended to help. But they’ll invest in labor-reducing technologies anyway if they can afford to.

Chili’s, often cited as a warning, has put tablets on tables for customers to place their orders in nearly all the restaurants it operates, not only those in the relatively few states with no tip credit wage.

But say some businesses truly can’t survive if they have to pay workers more.That would mean job losses, as industry spokespersons say. But it could also mean new job openings.

Customers, after all, won’t start cooking all their meals that home because the restaurant they’ve frequented closed — or start cutting their own hair. And former tip credit workers in businesses that cope will have more to spend. That could mean job openings in other retail businesses.

In any event, we’ve got a matter of principle here — the same that applies to all labor standards, e.g., workplace safety rules, prohibitions against wage theft.

Speaking of minimum wage increases generally, Professor David Howell refers to “[t]he moral, social, economic, and political benefits of a much higher standard of living from work.”

We should, he argues, weigh these against prospective job losses — even if we know for sure that a higher wage floor would cause them, as in this case we don’t.

And if some businesses fold because they can’t turn a profit if they have to pay workers $15 an hour, we ought, I think, to ask ourselves how much that matters when the alternative is a policy that enables exploitation.

 

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