This month, President Trump's Labor Department proposed a new rule that would permit some restaurants to share (or "pool") tips between servers like myself and "heart of the house" employees, such as cooks and dishwashers. It would rescind a 2011 rule that prohibited restaurants from including these latter employees in a tip pool.
Some labor advocacy groups were quick to suggest the new rule would allow employers to "steal" tips; a related Facebook video on the topic featuring actress Jane Fonda went viral. This knee-jerk reaction angered me: As a career restaurant server, I'm strongly supportive of the rule — and my fellow servers should be as well. The argument that the rule will permit employers to "steal" employees' tips is way off base: No tipped employee in his or her right mind would sign up to work in a restaurant where the agreement between staff and management says that all tips are kept by the owner.
Let's start with this: I'm a staunch Democrat, and a proud member of the "resistance" against President Trump. There's very little on which I agree with the President. But in this instance, the proposed rule from the President's Labor Department has been the victim of "fake news."
There are some important facts that servers should know about the proposed rule. First, it only applies in instances where the employer doesn't take a credit for servers' tip income, and where the server is paid at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25. For the vast majority of servers outside the seven states that don't permit a partial wage credit against tip income (more on that in a minute), or states like New York where the tipped wage is higher than the federal minimum wage, this rule won't change a thing. If you do live in one of the affected states, the rule only affects you if you've voluntarily decided to work at a restaurant that uses a tip pool, and if state law permits it.
This isn't an isolated problem, and in fact, it's one that I was deeply-involved in trying to prevent in my home state of Maine. A Nov. 2016 initiative to raise my state's minimum wage to $12 an hour contained a poorly-understood provision to eliminate the tiered wage for employees who earn substantial tip income. After the initiative passed at the ballot box, a grassroots group of over 5,000 servers pleaded with legislators to right this wrong. We understood that a mandated 220-percent increase in base pay for servers, who already earn far more than the minimum, would leave the cooks out in the cold.
After the longest public hearing in our state's history (over 12 hours), and an aggressive email campaign to our legislators, we won reinstatement of our tipped wage.
Our opponent in Maine was an organization called the Restaurant Opportunities Center. ROC had helped bankroll the ballot initiative with out-of-state cash, and its founder Saru Jayaraman later flew in from Berkeley, Calif., to lecture us on life in Maine. (Jayaraman admitted she had been paid $80,000 for her testimony at hearings like ours.) ROC would prefer Maine to go the way of California because the group is primarily motivated by an ideological opposition to the practice of tipping. Its founder has called tipping "wrong" and has said "this system of tipping needs to go."
ROC is entitled to its opposition to tipping; what it shouldn't be entitled to do is speak out of both sides of its mouth. Yet, that's exactly what ROC did with its misleading video of Jane Fonda warning servers about the President's proposed rule: It opposes tipping on one hand, and then on the other warns servers that the Trump administration is trying to take its tips.
The economics of the restaurant industry can be complicated; but this complexity is no excuse for ignorance by advocates or journalists. If they're going to report or opine on policies that impact my well-being or the well-being of my coworkers in the kitchen, they better be sure they know what they're talking about. In states that don't count tips as income, there simply isn’t more money for restaurants to provide raises to the people in the kitchen who need it most. That's what the President's rule would do, and that's why I strongly support it.
Joshua Chaisson is a restaurant server in Portland, Maine.
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