How to steal $110 million from Iowa workers

No artifice of “regulatory relief” or concern for untipped workers can justify this theft.

In most states, tipped workers are paid a subminimum “tipped wage.” In Iowa the tipped wage is $4.35/hr. The gap between the tipped wage and the minimum wage (in Iowa, $7.25-$4.35 or $2.90) is called the “tip credit.” Tips are first used to satisfy this credit (bringing the hourly wage to the minimum); once the credit is satisfied, tips are an uneven addition.

Our state and national labor laws have long operated under the assumption that tips earned by waitresses or bartenders or manicurists belong to the worker who earned them. In 2011, the federal Department of Labor (DOL) clarified and codified this rule, underscoring that, regardless of the jurisdiction or local wage, “a tip is the sole property of the tipped employee.”

In December of last year, the Trump Administration announced its attention to repeal this rule (after already announcing its intention to cease enforcement of the rule last July). Under the new regime, employers of tipped workers could retain any tips in excess of those needed to satisfy the tip credit. Forcing tipped workers to pool or kick back tips to the house has always been considered a form of wage theft. The new rule would make this wage theft perfectly legal.

The new rule, the brainchild of the National Restaurant Association, rests on the thin logic that employers would share tips with “back of the house” staff. But nothing in the rule requires them to do so, and research on wage theft in various jurisdictions suggests that tip stealing by management is already widespread. Indeed, the DOL punctured its own logic with an internal study finding that the rule would result in huge losses to tipped staff, and then — in defiance of any semblance of good government and transparency — buried the study.

Fortunately, the Economic Policy Institute (whose crack research staff includes the DOL’s former chief economist) has stepped in with its own look at the dismal impact of this rule. Using a combination of W-2 (tax) and industry data, EPI estimates a base of about $36.4 billion annually in tips (a conservative estimate, since a substantial share of tips go unreported as income). Since some of that $36 billion must be used to satisfy the tip credit, the share of that “at risk” is a little lower, about $26 billion.

Grade school economics, in turn, would suggest that almost all of that $26 billion would be pocketed by employers: There is no need or incentive, after all, to share tip revenues with bussers and dishwashers, whose wages (and willingness to work) are already established by local labor markets. Fortunately, many state labor laws offer further protection or regulations of tipped wages that would not be affected or pre-empted by the new federal rule. This brings the take of this heist down to just under $6 billion. In Iowa alone (where no state laws supplement federal rules and standards on tipped work), the annual loss would be about $110 million.

Looking at this on a smaller scale drives home the avarice and the injustice. Consider Francesca, a waitress at a mid-price, full service restaurant. Her base wage is $4.35. On a typical four-hour dinner shift, she serves eight tables. The average bill for those tables is $25.00, and the average tip is 15 percent or $3.75 — making her take home pay $47.40 ($17.40 in base wages and $30 in tips), or just under $12/hour. Under the new rule, Francesca would keep only enough of that $30 in tips to bring her wage — the base wage plus the tip credit — to the federal and Iowa minimum wage of $7.25. She takes home $29. If we follow EPI’s assumption, about half of the remaining tips would go to other employees, and about half would go in the employer’s pocket.

No artifice of “regulatory relief” or concern for untipped workers can justify this theft. The new rule, as Christine Owens of the National Employment Law Project notes, is “nothing more than robber barons masquerading as Robin Hood.”

Colin Gordon, professor of history at the University of Iowa, is senior research consultant at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. He has authored or co-authored many IPP reports on jobs, wages and wage theft issues including The State of Working Iowa. cgordonipp@gmail.com

More from IPP on wage theft:
Wage Theft in Iowa by Colin Gordon, Matthew Glasson, Jennifer Sherer and Robin Clark-Bennett, August 2012
Stolen Chances: Low-Wage Work and Wage Theft in Iowa by Colin Gordon, September 2015

New expectations on minimum wage

Pushing the debate ahead to where it will affect more workers is where the debate needs to go.

What, you won’t give us $10.10? OK, we’ll take $12.

Now, we’re talkin’!

At a time when progressive positions are compromised before they are given a chance to help the economy, boost family prosperity and lessen growing inequities, minimum-wage proponents have drawn the line at an unusual place in the sand: ahead of the one before.

It’s a bold stroke when the House and Senate leaders are against any increase in the current minimum of $7.25 an hour. The national minimum wage has been stuck there since July 2009 — and in Iowa even longer, since the state minimum rose and stopped there in January 2008.

Seven-plus years later, inflation has put minimum-wage workers in Iowa behind where they were in 2007 and 2008.

In 2013, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Congressman George Miller of California teamed up to promote $10.10, calling $7.25 “unconscionably low.” But it has not happened.

Last week, Senator Patty Murray of Washington and Congressman Bobby Scott of Virginia introduced legislation to raise the minimum to $12 by 2020, in five steps. It also would eliminate the $2.13 tipped wage and index the new minimum to inflation.

Here’s an Iowa fact sheet, and here are reports from the Economic Policy Institute and National Employment Law Project.

150428-MWgraphic12

For some a $12 minimum wage will still sound too low. For some it will sound too high — which is why the debate retreated to $8.75 in Iowa this year, and that cannot even get a vote in the Iowa House.

Pushing the debate ahead to a place where it will affect more workers — 436,000 in Iowa, or 42 percent more than the 306,000 affected with a minimum at $10.10 — is where this needs to go. It may increase pressure to the point where we see more candidates taking a stand and votes taken in Washington and more state capitols.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, executive director of the Iowa Policy Project
Basic RGBThe Iowa Policy Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. IPP is a 501(c)3 organization and contributions to IPP are tax-deductible as permitted by law.

Connecting dots draws tough course for Iowa jobs

Why is job outlook dim? Don’t blame an educational gap or the business cycle. Long-term projections favor low-wage service jobs over better-paying sectors.

The chart projecting Iowa jobs in the near future is not pretty.

click on image for interactive version

Using the most current state level numbers, for 2008-2018), this graph shows that the fastest growing jobs taking larger shares of the Iowa job market through 2018 are in sectors that pay lower than the state median wage. Dots represent occupations; blue dots pay higher than the statewide median wage (2011 numbers) and red dots pay lower. Move your cursor to each dot to see the occupation, its 2008 employment, its median wage and projected employment.

Only 4 of 18 occupations projecting job gains over 1,500 by 2018 pay better than a median wage, and only one of the 10 occupations projecting job gains over 2,000 pay better than the median. Six occupations (retail sales, office clerk, nursing aides, home health aides, food preparation, and customer service) project job growth greater than 4,000 and the highest wage in this group falls more than $2.00 short of the median wage.

Why is this happening? Don’t blame it on an educational gap, in which workers with skills pull away from the rest. As the Center for Economic and Policy Research has shown — here and here and here — today’s low wage workers are older and better educated  than ever.

It also is not an artifact of the business cycle, as the Department of Labor estimates in long-term projections that about a third of new jobs through the next decade will be in low-wage service occupations (retail, home health care, child care, janitorial).

Combine these projections with the troubling trend of the last business cycle, which hit good jobs hard. The National Employment Law Project has shown (here and updated here), that job losses during the recession were concentrated in mid-wage occupations, while job gains during the recovery have been concentrated at the low end.

Our work, it seems, is cut out for us — well-paid or not.

Posted by Colin Gordon, Senior Research Consultant

Note: Colin Gordon is a Professor of History at the University of Iowa and Senior Research Consultant at the Iowa Policy Project. This post is taken from his blog, TelltaleChart.org