Everyone Needs Time Off From Work, But Millions Can’t Take It

August 1, 2016

I’m preoccupied with time off from work — why I need it, why we all do, why so many can’t take it and what policymakers can do about that.

One of the privileges of retirement is that you can take time off from whatever you’ve chosen to fill your days with and still have as much income as if you’d taken no break.

This assumes you don’t need to earn more because you got paid enough, steadily enough to live on Social Security benefits, plus your savings when you choose not to work anymore — or, as in my case, when the rewards of the work you choose don’t pay bills.

I’ve needed more time off, if you can call it that, since my husband died, partly to deal with basic life maintenance tasks he used to handle and partly to manage more consequential matters.

But the need for time off is hardly restricted to people who’ve experienced a life-changing event. My late sister Marjorie used to take what she called well days — paid time off to tackle personal business so that the mounting pressures didn’t trigger anxieties, sleeplessness and the like that would sap her resistance to illness.

Very few workers have such accommodating bosses, of course. Many can’t even take time off and still get their regular paychecks if they’re actually sick.

About 36% of private-sector workers have no paid sick leave benefit, the Bureau of Labor Statistics just reported. And nearly 60% with service-related jobs don’t. (Remember this next time a wait server hovers over your shoulder.)

Workers, as a whole, fare worse when they need time off to care for a sick family member, a newborn or themselves when they’re expecting. Only 11% of those in the private sector can rely on formal employer policies, though another 28% say they could take it. Not that they tried, mind you.

Needless to say, I hope, fewer low-wage workers have access to any paid leave than others. And they, of course, can least afford to forfeit pay.

Perhaps not needless to say, even now, is that only about 60% of all workers can take unpaid leave for medical or compelling family reasons with any assurance they’ll have jobs to come back to.

They’re workers covered by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. Similar laws in some states may push the percent up a bit. No data to tell us, so far as I know. But we can, I think, assume that at least a quarter of private-sector workers have no legal right to time off when they’re sick, pregnant or must care for a family member.

The rest don’t qualify because their employer doesn’t have enough other workers on the payroll or because they haven’t worked for the employer long enough. Others because they haven’t recently put in as many hours as the laws require.

FMLA itself is singularly restrictive on workforce size, letting even large employers do as they wish if they have fewer than 50 workers at a given site or within 75 miles of it.

Even workers at sites that meet this standard have no legal right to the unpaid leave unless they’ve worked for the employer for at least a year and for at least 1,250 hours, i.e., more than half time.

We see similar, though not identical restrictions in states’ laws. A lot of variation, but no state requires all employers to let all their workers take time off for an urgent personal health or family-related reason.

Workers entitled to the leave time often can’t take it because they can’t afford to lose pay. But sometimes they’ve no choice. They’ve broken a leg and can’t even hobble to the bus stop, for example.

Reverting to my own experience, illness or other physical incapacity is only one reason people can’t put in the hours they’re scheduled for. They may need to be home, as I recently did, to deal with technicians so as to get the air conditioner chilling again — and (coincidentally) the refrigerator chilling the food.

Paid vacation leave would, in theory, prevent wage loss in such cases. But workers whose employers provide it must often schedule it in advance. And most of the lowest-paid in the private sector have none. This has nothing to do with restrictions in existing laws.

No law requires private-sector employers in America to provide any worker with vacation leave — liberally understood as leave for any reason not covered by FMLA or its state equivalents.

The realities of the labor market generally constrain employers to include a paid vacation leave benefit in the package they offer workers with high-level, in-demand skills. Not, however, those they can hire — and feel they can readily replace — by offering only a low wage.

Bernie Sanders introduced a paid vacation bill when he was campaigning for the Presidential nomination. An idea whose time hasn’t come yet. Paid medical and family leave is a whole other story.

Worker and family advocates have long pressed for it at both federal and state levels. Clinton has embraced it, though not apparently the way pending House and Senate bills would pay for it. It’s a plank in the Democratic party platform, of course.

Columnists left and right understood Ivanka Trump to say her dad would support paid leave when she introduced him at the Republican convention. Not explicitly. Just as well, since he’s suggested it would make our country less competitive.

Regardless of who moves into the White House, a paid sick and family leave bill will have a tough time getting through the next Congress.

House Speaker Paul Ryan could have supported an earlier version of the pending paid leave bill. He instead signed on to one that would let (or force) workers to substitute time off for overtime pay — an old, bad tradeoff.

It’s also Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s “family friendly” alternative to a paid leave guarantee. Democrats would need to gain 14 Senate seats to pass a paid leave bill there. They surely won’t have enough in the House anyway.

So we may see more states decide they shouldn’t wait for a federal law, just as we’ve seen them do with other worker and family friendly measures, e.g., minimum wage increases, controls on constantly shifting schedules.

Best hope for now, I think, though I’d like to be wrong.


Lots of Progressive Ideas for Strengthening Working Family Tax Credits

July 28, 2016

The Child Tax Credit today is a more effective anti-poverty measure than it was before the Recovery Act made more parents eligible to claim it. But it’s still got limits that make it less effective than it could be, even given the practical constraints of public policy reforms.

My last post summarized the limits and a pair of Republican proposals for boosting the credit. Here, as promised, are proposals from more progressive quarters, plus a couple that go at child-raising costs through a different tax credit.

The Democratic party platform supports expanding the CTC, either by making more of it refundable or by indexing it so that it won’t continue losing real-dollar value. The latter presumably refers to the maximum parents can claim — frozen at $1,000 per child since 2001 and thus worth about a third less.

Democrats in Congress have proposed more ambitious reforms. Colorado Senator Michael Bennett introduced a bill last year that’s, to my knowledge, the most ambitious.

It would eliminate the $3,000 earned income threshold for claiming the credit and index the credit to inflation, making it, in both respects, like the Earned Income Tax Credit. It would also triple the value of the credit for children under six.

These reforms borrow from recommendations by the Center for American Progress. CAP, however, would restrict the more ample credit to children under three and boost it less.

The boost,  it says, will help families “when their needs are greatest.” A two-pronged rationale for this. First, parents are in the early stages of their careers and perhaps saddled with student loan debt.

Second, they’re suddenly faced with substantial new expenses, e.g., diapers, cribs, car seats. Perhaps also, though unmentioned, with the inordinately high cost of childcare for infants and toddlers — on average, $11,666 a year nationwide for those in centers.

More recently, Congressmember Rosa DeLauro and two cosponsors introduced a bill that also adopts some of CAP’s recommendations. It would provide the same boost — one-and-a-half times the regular CTC to parents with children under three.

And they’d receive it as a sort of cash allowance, paid monthly or as often as the Treasury Department deemed feasible. So they’d have the extra money when they needed it, rather than a lump sum once a year.

A broader anti-poverty bill just introduced by Senators Cory Booker and Tammy Baldwin would also index the CTC. It would make the tax credit fully refundable for all families, while targeting it the poorest. We’ll need to await a posting to learn the details.

Clinton herself has focused on childcare costs. She’d cap them at 10% of a family’s income through some combination of expanded subsidies and tax credits.

Wonkblogger Danielle Paquette thinks she’ll probably look to CAP’s recommendations for the latter. Perhaps, but a beefed-up Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit would seem a more targeted approach.

And Clinton can look to an advocacy organization for it too — the one she worked for as a new law school graduate.

Almost a year and a half ago, the Children’s Defense Fund proposed a multi-part plan for cutting the child poverty rate by 60%, without increasing the deficit, even briefly.

The Fund did propose making the CTC fully refundable, rather than keeping it capped at 15% of earned income over the threshold for claiming it. But it also proposed two expansions of the CDCTC.

One would increase the percent of care costs the credit offsets — for lower-income families only. The credit would phase down gradually, from 50% for the very lowest-income.

The other change would make the credit fully refundable for families regardless of income. It’s now only a way to reduce tax liabilities, not a potential source of extra income like the CTC and EITC.

A bill introduced only weeks ago by Congressmember Katherine Clark seems to borrow from this recommendation and from one of CAP’s — maybe by way of the DeLauro bill.

It too would provide monthly payments. But they’d serve as childcare subsidies and go directly to centers and home-based providers where eligible parents had their kids enrolled, though again only if quite young.

The credits would be higher for the youngest and also for low-income families. But even the better-off would get something if their adjusted gross incomes didn’t exceed 400% of the federal poverty line — $80,640 for a three-person family this year.

The credits would become refundable, even though the monthly payments would bypass parents. I don’t understand how this would work, not for want of asking Clark’s staff.

Stepping back out of the weeds, we can see that the next Congress and President will have no shortage of ideas for using tax credits to defray a greater share of the costs of child-raising — or at the very least, the costs of having some non-family member care for them part of the time.

Whether policymakers should focus strictly on very young children is an open question, CAP’s rationale notwithstanding. Working parents often need child care for their school-age children, though for fewer hours.

And those children have many other needs, of course — a case for making the CTC a more substantive help for low-income parents, as the Defense Fund proposes. That alone would reduce the child poverty rate by 12%, according to estimates the Urban Institute supplied.

On the other hand, we know that the experiences children have in their earliest years have singularly lasting consequences. The hardships and other stresses of poverty, for example, can impair normal brain development.

Conversely, high-quality early education has well-documented benefits, especially for low-income children, whose parents often have neither the time nor money to provide those enriching experiences that prepare children to do well in school and thereafter.

It all, I suppose, boils down to how much our country is willing to invest in the next generation. We know how we could invest more, with high returns. But we’ve known that for a long time. So it’s not lack of knowledge that’s stymied action, but lack of bipartisan political will.

 

 

 

 


Child Tax Credit Lifts Kids Out of Poverty, But Too Limited for Big Impact

July 25, 2016

Children are the single poorest age group in our country. More than one in five live in poverty, according to the Census Bureau’s latest report based on its official measure. The better measure still shows a 16.7% child poverty rate.

What these rates tell us, among other things, is that a great many parents don’t have enough money to pay for even their children’s basic needs. Nor their own, since the measures reflect household income.

We don’t have a good fix on how much they’d need. The U.S. Department of Agriculture does, however, provide rough estimates, based on a survey of what parents actually spend. Unfortunately, we get only a crude family income breakout — all families below $61,530 lumped together.

That said, USDA reports that the costs of raising a child from birth to age 18 totaled $164,160 three years ago for a single parent with one child in the lowest income bracket. Costs mount as children grow up — the total, of course, but also by their age.

Infants, on average, cost the least. But even they set low and moderate-income single parents back an estimated $10,436 in their first year. A single mother who worked full time, year round at the federal minimum wage would have only about $3,700 of her take-home pay left for all other expenses.

We do, of course, have publicly-funded programs to supplement what parents can afford to spend out of their own earnings, if any. Some are uniquely for children — the Children’s Health Insurance Program, for example, WIC and pre-college public education. Far more include both them and adults in the household.

Rolling the two kinds together, First Focus reports that this year’s federal children’s budget accounts for 7.83% of total spending — this after factoring out parents’ share of safety net benefits like SNAP (food stamps) and housing assistance.

So we’re investing relatively little in the well-being and future prospects of the next generation. No news here, though the fact that children’s share of spending has shrunk since 2010 may be. It wasn’t all that big a share then, however — just 8.45%.

What the First Focus analysis doesn’t capture is federal spending through the tax code, rather than annual budgets. The Urban Institute’s Kids Share analyses do.

The latest puts total federal spending on children at 10% of the 2014 total — roughly $463 billion. Two-fifths of that reflects tax deductions and credits for families with children.

Drilling down further, we find $53.6 billion in refunds from the Earned Income Tax Credit, i.e., money parents receive when the credit they’re entitled to, plus other gross income adjustments exceeds what they owe.

The refundable part of the Child Tax Credit was less than half that — $21.5 billion. And unlike the EITC, it was less than paid out in 2013.

The refundable tax credits together lifted roughly 10.6 million people, including 5.6 million children over the poverty threshold and made significantly more less poor than they would otherwise have been.

But clearly the EITC did most of the lifting, accounting for all but 1.7 million of the not-poor, but still low-income children. Several major reasons for this.

First off, not all parents with earned income can claim the refundable CTC. They have to have made at least $3,000 during the year, either together, if they file jointly, or alone if they’re single. The EITC, by contrast, kicks in at the first dollar of earned income.

Second, the tax credit for most working parents is capped at $1,000 per child. (No credit — and thus no potential refund — for very high-earners, who won’t concern us here.) Third, another cap limits per-child refunds to 15% of earned income above the threshold for claiming it.

These several constraints mean considerably lower tax benefits. A single parent with one child, for example, could receive $3,359 from the EITC this year. And the benefit is annually adjusted to keep pace with inflation, while the CTC isn’t.

Political leaders of various stripes have teed up proposals for boosting the CTC. Then-Presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, for example, included a $2,500 supplement to the current maximum in his tax plan.

That, said the Center for American Progress, among others, would have benefited higher-income families, while failing to protect low-income families from losing all or part of their benefits, as they would have if Congress hadn’t subsequently made the Recovery Act improvements permanent.

The House Republicans’ tax plan calls for increasing the CTC to $1,500 (presumably per child) and raising the maximum income eligibility for married couples.

The refundable part would still be capped at $1,000, however. And filers without Social Security numbers couldn’t claim it — a not-so-subtle attack on undocumented workers and their children that Republicans have repeatedly made.

Though the plan may seem more friendly to other parents with children, it actually isn’t because it would eliminate the exemption for children — $4,000 per child this year, except for very high-earners. So what the right hand giveth, the far-right hand taketh away.

Democrats have also seized on the CTC as an opportunity to strengthen support for working families. We’ve got several proposals languishing in Congress now. And we may see the issue develop in the last round of this seemingly endless Presidential campaign.

Too much for me to cover here. So I’ll reserve the more progressive approaches for a separate post. Will just note here that making child raising costs more affordable seems to have gained traction over the last several years.

Whether we’ll actually see tax credit changes will, like so many things, depend on what happens in November. Now, if poor and near-poor children could vote ….

 

 


Millions of Children Overlooked in Social Security Spending Debate

July 21, 2016

I’ve remarked before on how proponents of “entitlement reform,” a.k.a. cuts in Social Security and Medicare, pit us older folks against the young.

If I had a nickel for every time the Washington Post editorial board had warned that we were taking money away from younger, needier people, I wouldn’t need my Social Security retirement benefits.

It’s not just self-anointed fiscal hawks who accuse us of eating the younger generation’s lunch. Post columnist Catherine Rampell, for example, says that “spending on other stuff — especially the elderly … is crowding out” spending for children’s needs.

The recent Social Security Trustees’ report will probably set off another round of calls for cutting retirement benefits, lest the system “go broke” in the mid-2030s. That’s not the only trigger for the old versus young framing, however.

The draft Democratic party platform endorses a more expansive Social Security program. And Clinton herself has promised to expand it, though not as broadly as Bernie Sanders earlier proposed.

So we should expect her and her surrogates to press the issue during the campaign — and Trump to insist he’ll leave Social Security alone, though he’s hinted at possible changes affecting future generations.

“Our goal,” he says, “is to keep the promises made to Americans through our Social Security program.” So for him, as for the notably more progressive and forthcoming Democrats, the focus remains on what the program does and should do for seniors.

A new report offers a genuinely new perspective on Social Security benefits — one that should, at the very least, disrupt the conventional framing. That’s just what the Center for Global Policy Solutions, which produced it, intends.

Turns out that the benefits provide crucial support to far more children than the Social Security Administration’s data show — more than twice as many, in fact, in 2014, the latest year the analysts had figures for.

This means, among other things, that the benefits lift far more children out of poverty than the Census Bureau’s reports identify. The latest puts the total at 2.2% of the age group. But the Center reports a 17.3% reduction in the child poverty rate.

These large differences stem from what benefits analyses include. The Census Bureau considers only benefits that go to children directly — not from the Supplemental Security Income program, which it reports separately, but from the programs for former workers and their dependents.

Children generally receive benefits directly when a wage-earning or formerly wage-earning parent dies or becomes too disabled to work anymore. In special cases, they may receive them when they’re cared for — and financially supported — by grandparents who themselves have retirement benefits.

The millions “overlooked, but not forgotten,” as the report’s subtitle calls them, are children who benefit indirectly because they live in households where somebody else receives Social Security benefits — or perhaps more than one somebody.

For all families with children, Social Security has become a more important source of income, the Center says, because total income — presumably, including wages and/or retirement accounts — has either stagnated or declined.

Social Security benefits that children received both directly and indirectly accounted for 39% of family income — again, in 2014. A much larger share for black children and their families — 46%, an increase of more than 9% since 2001.

This in itself speaks volumes about the anti-poverty effects of Social Security — and volumes about what will happen to children and their families if federal policymakers decide to save the program by measures leading Republicans (and our very Democratic President) have proposed in the past.

One, as I’ve written before, would further increase the retirement age for claiming benefits. That would surely throw more multi-generational families into poverty — and more that consist of only grandparents and their grandkids.

Another, no longer favored by Obama, would make cost-of-living adjustments even smaller, though the COLA measure now used apparently understates what seniors must spend to meet their basic needs.

The Center instead endorses a mix of measures to shore up the Social Security Trust Fund — all recommended by a panel of experts that it and a partner nonprofit convened about five years ago.

We’ve seen versions of the measures elsewhere — scrapping the cap on earned income subject to payroll taxes, for example, and reducing the benefits paid to former high-earners. The Center would fold in a small, gradual increase in the payroll tax rate, split between employers and employees. This too has been floated before.

Everybody from left to right knows we’ve got to do something because Social Security beneficiaries will otherwise receive less than they’re entitled to long about 2035. And the sooner we do something to protect them, the less drastic it will have to be.

The Center’s report should create a greater sense of urgency, if needed among advocates, analysts and op-ed writers who sometimes frame Social Security spending as a threat to children in need.

First Focus President Bruce Lesley tweets a line from the inimitable Stephen Colbert: “If we don’t cut expensive things like Head Start, child nutrition programs, and teachers, what sort of future are we leaving for our children?”

We know now we could ask the same ironic question about Social Security benefits.


Restaurant Associations Don’t Speak for the Industry on Tip Credit Wages

July 18, 2016

Some of you, I’m sure, feel I’ve gone on plenty long enough about the tip credit wage. But there’s a piece of the story I’ve merely hinted at — and one that merits a tad more.

It has to do with the commonly used term “restaurant industry” as the leading force against any increase in the tip credit wage. The “industry” generally means the National Restaurant Association and/or its state affiliates, including one in the Washington metro area.

Yet neither this NRA nor its affiliates represent all restaurants when they advocate against changes in the tip credit wage.

Nor did the then-head of the NRA when he persuaded Congress to freeze the wage, rather than let it rise, as it always had, when the federal minimum increased — this in exchange for no lobbying against the then-pending increase.

Basically, far from all restaurant owners benefit from the sub-minimum wage. Some that could, i.e., those that provide table service and perhaps have bars, choose to pay their tipped workers more than they have to.

Restaurant Opportunities Council United highlighted a handful in Taking the High Road — its best-practices guide.

Small Business Trends more recently reported no-tipping policies in at least 18 New York City restaurants. Some of shifted to service charges. Others to prices that factor in their higher labor costs.


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

July 14, 2016

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.

 


DC Mayor and Council Preempt One Fair Wage for All

July 11, 2016

We in the District of Columbia like to pride ourselves on how progressive our community is. But it’s behind the curve now on an issue that directly affects nearly 29,000 local workers — those whom employers can pay far less than the minimum wage.

The draft Democratic Party platform supports an end to the sub-minimum, i.e., tip credit, wage. That would extend nationwide a policy already in force in seven states. The DC Council instead chose to merely increase the wage to $5.00 by 2020 — even less than the Mayor had proposed.

All our elected officials knowingly preempted our chance as constituents to decide whether all workers our labor laws can cover* should get paid at least $15 an hour — one fair wage, as it’s commonly called.

Let’s just say they know not only which side their bread is buttered on, but who butters it — restaurant owners represented by the local affiliate of the National Restaurant Association and other business owners for whom the Chamber of Commerce purports to speak.

I’ve written about the tip credit wage before, but for those new to the issue, here’s what it is and a summary of what’s wrong with it.

How the Tip Credit Wage Works

Employers in most states and the District may pay workers who regularly receive tips a much lower cash wage than the regular minimum. They must fill in any gap between the tip credit wage, plus tips a worker receives and the regular minimum.

So, for example, owners of sit-down restaurants in the District, along with hotel owners and other businesses like hair and nail salons must now pay their tipped employees $2.77 an hour, no matter what.

If their workers receive at least $8.73 an hour in tips, they’re home free. If not, they must add to paychecks enough to equal $11.50 an hour.

At best then, customers subsidize employers’ labor costs, though most believe they’re just rewarding workers who’ve served them.

Why the Tip Credit Wage Doesn’t Work

A common complaint — amply documented — is that most workers subject to the tip credit wage earn very little. That, in theory, is  a problem with the minimum wage itself. In practice, however, workers may not get as much as they’ve earned — or even know they’ve been shorted. Several reasons for this.

First off, workers may not know how much they’ve received in tips. Consider, for example, a wait server who’s rushing from one table to another. How’s she supposed to keep track of tips, when so many now are added to credit card bills?

Second, employers may legally do several things to deny workers the full amount they receive in tips. They may deduct processing charges for tips added to credit card bills. They may put all tips into a pool and divvy them up among tipped staff, based on some formula they’ve established.

Third, the tip credit system virtually invites abuse. For example, we know of cases where employers have siphoned off tips from the pool to ramp up pay for non-tipped workers. In other cases, employers have required tipped employees to do a lot of work they don’t receive tips for while still basing their whole pay on the sub-minimum.

In still others, employers simply don’t fill in the gap between the sub-minimum wage, plus tips and the regular minimum. More than one in ten workers in tipped occupations reported total hourly wages below the federal minimum, according to White House economists and the U.S. Department of Labor.

The Labor Department has said it knows of at least 1,500 recent cases of wage theft associated with the tip credit wage. But there are surely more.

The provision that requires employers to ensure that tipped workers earn at least the full minimum wage is difficult to enforce, the White House report says. And the Labor Department has nothing like the resources to investigate as broadly as seems warranted.

This seems also the case in the District, where a coalition of local and national organizations recently called for, among other things, “proactive, increased enforcement” of worker protection laws. But the office responsible for enforcing them won’t have enough staff.

As things stand now, both the federal and local wage and hour enforcement agencies depend largely or solely on complaints filed by workers and organizations representing them.

But workers hesitate to complain because managers can readily retaliate — if not by firing them, then by reducing their hours or putting them on shifts that yield paltry tips.

Wage theft isn’t the only thing tip credit workers could, but often don’t complain about. A survey of restaurant workers found very high rates of sexual harassment — and twice as many in tip credit states as others.

More than half felt they had to put up with it because they’d lose tips — and perhaps their jobs — if they didn’t.

In short, what’s to like if you’re not a business owner who profits, legally or otherwise, by paying your workers the tip credit wage?

The owners and associations that represent them say tipped workers should and do like it and that eliminating it would harm not only them, but the local economy.

I’ll take up their arguments in a followup post — in part because we may not have heard the last of them, whatever happens nationally in November.

* Only Congress and federal agencies can set wages for federal employees and workers employed by federal contractors. The draft Democratic Party platform addresses both — the former with a $15 an hour minimum wage and the latter with an executive order “or some other vehicle.”

 


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