Monday, November 7, 2011

Candidate Cain and the Economics of Restaurants

The media continues to press presidential candidate Cain with a few tough questions, but it is time to ask him about minimum wages for restaurant staff. Given his record as past president of the American Restaurant Association he knows about sub minimum wage for tipped employees.

The Federal minimum wage went up to $7.25 an hour on July 24th 2009 but not for tipped employees whose minimum wage remains at $2.13 an hour. When the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938 restaurant workers, among others, were excluded from the minimum wage. In 1966 they were finally included, but only at 50 percent of the minimum wage. Some in the restaurant owners complained they shouldn’t have to pay any wages because their waiters and waitresses earned plenty from their tips.

Until 1996 the tipped wage went up when Congress raised the minimum wage, but in 1996 and again in 2007 the restaurant industry lobbied Congress to leave the tipped minimum at $2.13 an hour. The Federal tipped minimum has remained at $2.13 an hour since 1991, which makes it only 29 percent of the present $7.25 an hour minimum wage.

The sub minimum wage for tipped employees allows business to further bid down wages where there is a surplus of labor like there is today with 14 million unemployed. The definition of tipped employees governing the sub minimum wage further contributes to a surplus by enlarging the number of occupations and pool of people that can be paid a sub minimum wage. That is because the sub minimum wage can be applied to employees in occupations that customarily receive as little as $30.00 a month in tips.

First, recognize that the monthly minimum wage at $7.25 an hour is $1,160 a month at 40 hours a week and 4 weeks per month. However, the $2.13 an hour sub minimum wage for tipped employees is just $340.80 a month, which means a tipped employee needs $819.20 a month in tips to get themselves up to the minimum wage.

Under federal rules governing the Fair Labor Standards Act employers who pay a sub minimum wage must verify that tips are enough to bring an employee up to at least the minimum wage, a practice known as taking the tip credit. Taking the tip credit requires detailed recordkeeping because employers are required to verify that tips are enough to make up the difference of the minimum and sub minimum wage. If tips are not enough to equal the minimum wage then the employer is expected to make up the difference.

Notice though that tips received up to $819.20 per month are in lieu of normal obligations to pay wages to employees. Even if tipped employees receive tips at or above $819.20 a month, wage costs drop from at least $7.25 an hour to as low as $2.13 an hour. Even when tips are less than $819.20 a month all of the tips recorded become a cost saving for their restaurant owners.

Fair Labor Standards rules also permit valid tip sharing agreements among tipped employees where tips are accumulated and redistributed by predetermined formula. Valid means agreements must be in writing and only include those who customarily receive $30 a month or more in tips. At a full service restaurant a number of different staff will meet the minimum tip requirement, but waiters and waitresses commonly get the largest share of tips over those who work as hosts, hostesses, runners, bartenders or other dinning room attendants and staff.

Tip pooling potentially saves on wage costs by helping to eliminate wage gaps among tipped occupations. Without tip sharing, wages plus tips for waiters and waitresses will tend to be higher than wages and tips for a host or hostess or bartenders, bus staff and other staff with less access to customers. Wage gaps make it harder to get people to do the host and hostess job without paying higher wages as long as we expect that people will want to leave low wage jobs for higher wage jobs. Tip sharing relieves that pressure by transferring tips from waiters and waitresses to hosts, hostess, bartenders and so on. Tip sharing improves the economic situation of these other staff, but at the expense of waiters and waitresses and not their employer. Tip sharing, like the sub minimum wage, saves wage costs for restaurant owners and relieves them of the normal obligation to pay wages.

Tipped employees work mostly in the full service restaurant industry, hotel and motel accommodations, personal services and attendants at parking lots and car washes. The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines 22 occupations in industries that customarily receive tips where employment came to 9.5 million in 2010. Food and beverage serving workers had 7.6 million of these jobs and 2.2 million of them as waiters and waitress. Personal appearance workers had 457 thousand employed in tipped occupations with the majority of them as hairdressers and hair stylists. Maids, bellhops, concierge and other transportation and tourism workers had 964 thousand jobs with nearly 866 thousand as maids. Parking lot attendants, and those cleaning vehicles, mostly at car washes, have another 413 thousand jobs. The total is nearly 7.5 percent of national establishment employment.

Despite the business and restaurant opposition that surrounds Congressional proposals to change the minimum wage, the regulations for the Fair Labor Standards Act provide many exemptions and legal ways to avoid and undermine the minimum wage in addition to the sub minimum wage for tipped employees. In practice the Federal minimum wage does not apply to millions of jobs or wages.

The record shows that America’s restaurant association lobbies to undermine the already low minimum wage. We know there are millions of cheapskates who support the sub minimum wage, but it’s time to ask Mr. Cain if he is one of them, or one of us who work for a living.


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Anonymous said...

Is it legal for management who is salaried and earns the most to take a portion of tips earned by cashiers and servers? The cashiers and servers are paid minimum wage, but manager feels he's entitled to the tips and sometimes he keeps all for himself.

Fred Siegmund said...

All tip sharing arrangements must be in writing to be legal. Beware of any loose talk not in writing.

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