If you work in a restaurant, or know someone who works in a restaurant, odds are you have seen or heard about the proposed tip-sharing rule that President Donald Trump’s Department of Labor is considering—and you or your friend are probably pretty pissed off about it.
In sum, the proposition would allow tips to be shared with staff who are currently federally excluded from getting tips, mainly kitchen crew and support staff. And while the thought of coming even close to defending something that ass in the Oval Office condones makes me gag, here’s the thing: right now, it is illegal for the folks in the back of the house—the cooks, the dishwashers, the other people working insanely hard to not only give guests a proper experience but to produce a hefty portion, in most restaurants, of the day’s sales—to receive a percentage of the front of house’s (servers and bartenders) tips (specifically, “tips received by the employee must be retained by the employee except through valid tip pooling arrangements among employees who customarily and regularly receive tips”).
And that’s fucked up.
In Massachusetts, the minimum wage is $11/hour, the starting wage of most back-of-house positions. We also have a tipped minimum wage, $3.75, that is paid hourly to folks who make at least $30/month in tips. If a tipped worker does not average at least the federal minimum of $7.25/hour throughout the course of their shift, the restaurant is required to make up the difference (which rarely happens but, if and when it does, is obscenely hard to reinforce).
I work for tips, and working for tips is awkward for a lot of reasons, but there’s a good rule of thumb to go by when it comes to calculating your income: I should be making at least 20 percent of the dollar amount of sales I ring in during my shift. It’s a little trickier with bartenders because there’s typically more than one of us working, and we share tips, but with more than one body on the bar you can, in theory, serve that many more people and ring that many more dollars in sales.
This is all generally speaking, because some people are assholes and tip poorly for great service, and others are your friends swinging through to say hello and throw money at you like you’re stripping. Nevertheless, the busier I am, the harder I’m working, the more drinks and food I serve, the more money I’m making.
As for take-home sums, if I don’t average at least $25/hour during a shift, I consider it a meh shift. I have made as little as $9/hour and as much as nearly $50/hour, but you had better believe I earned that $50/hour. I have spent years waking up on Sundays and feeling like I’ve been thrown down a flight of stairs from all of the shaking and stirring and bottle lifting I did the evening before.
On those same nights, the nights we break sales records, the nights I walk out of work at 4 am pale and sweaty, but knowing my next paycheck is going to be insane, everybody working in the back of the house goes home saying, I can’t believe I did all of that for $11/hour. What this proposition does is allow kitchen staff to be cut into the success of an insanely busy, profitable evening.
But it doesn’t say that exclusively…
Right now, managers and owners, generally salaried employees who do not have an active hand in regularly serving guests or making food or drink, are also legally prohibited from taking tips from the front-of-house staff.
This provision would change that.
And the potential for theft is outrageous.
Earlier this year, Hawkeye Hospitality, the restaurant group behind Five Horses Tavern and Worden Hall, settled a wage theft suit for over $15,000 with employees claiming that management at Five Horses Tavern in Davis Square had forced employees to pay for mistakes—ringing in the wrong appetizer or beer, a burger being undercooked and sent back, a guest walking out on their tab or failing to pay for all of it—out of their tips.
Alix Macaluso, a former server at Five Horses, had a table transferred to her one night and when she dropped the check, the table walked out. Management told her she was responsible for paying the bill.
“I fought it, they said fine, I could pay half of it,” Macaluso told me. “It came out of my tips. I told my manager it was wrong. I left and I never came back.”
Brian Sparks, another former server at Five Horses who led the charge to bring a formal suit against the owner of the restaurant, said he saw a manager go into the tip bucket and take money out to pay for a mistake on a bill.
“I thought, ‘Oh my god, that can’t be legal,’” he says. “I couldn’t believe no one said anything.”
The owner denied any of this took place, but Sparks obtained emails, through the office of the attorney general, showing correspondence between managers containing the words “mistake(s)” and “paid.” The documents are damning.
The Attorney General’s office determined that this was not allowed because of the current law, the law Trump’s administration wants to change, that declares all tips belong to the employee and are not shared with nontipped employees.
I am all for kitchen and support staff being paid more. In fact, and I’ve said it before, I’m for getting rid of tipping in general and moving to something like profit sharing, like Juliet in Somerville, or being paid a percentage of sales, like Danny Meyers’ Hospitality Included model.
But this provision isn’t doing that.
It’s making an industry that by and large gets away with paying its staff a pittance, and where abuse of power is rampant, even more unstable and volatile for the people trying to making a living.
And while this provision would only impact states where tipped employees are paid at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour (places like California, Oregon, and New York), not a much lower tipped minimum like we have here in Mass, if anything is going to alter the way people working in restaurants get paid, it better come from the people working in restaurants.
Copyright 2017 Haley Hamilton.
Terms of Service is licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
Haley is an AAN Award-winning columnist for DigBoston and Mel magazine and has contributed to publications including the Boston Globe and helped found Homicide Watch Boston. She has spearheaded and led several Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism investigations including a landmark multipart series about the racialized history of liquor licensing in Massachusetts, and for three years wrote the column Terms of Service about restaurant industry issues from the perspective of workers.