AN ASTOUNDING 2,232 pages, the $1.3 trillion omnibus appropriations bill President Trump recently signed into law represents democracy at its most unreadable. Instead of fashioning trade-offs among competing priorities — to govern is to choose, and all that — Republicans and Democrats basically added each other’s wish lists together and billed them to the national credit card. Still, there is one nugget of genuine bipartisan policymaking buried within this unlovely opus, and it could benefit restaurants and their millions of workers across the country. Let’s focus on that.
This year, the Labor Department proposed a regulation that could have resulted in restaurant employers dipping into the tips customers leave for employees, depriving those employees of as much as $5.8 billion a year in income, according to an estimate by the Economic Policy Institute. The story began under the Obama administration, when it barred employers from pooling servers’ tips and using them to boost pay for untipped “back of the house” staff such as dishwashers, even if they paid servers the full statutory minimum wage. The Trump administration rule said employers who paid servers the full statutory minimum could indeed divert tips to the back of the house; as written, though, it seemed to allow restaurants to keep the tips for themselves, not just share them with dishwashers. The restaurant lobby swore that restaurants had no intention of doing so, but with wage theft already a chronic problem in the industry, employee advocates were understandably skeptical.
In recent weeks, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) took up the servers’ cause, and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta agreed to negotiate. The result is a repeal of the Trump rule — you can find it on Page 2,025. The provision also amends federal labor law to clarify that tips belong to workers and may not be diverted into management’s coffers, although they can go to the back of the house when servers get full minimum wage. Everyone — worker advocates and the restaurant lobby alike — says they’re satisfied. The issue is most relevant to California and a handful of other states, encompassing about 30 percent of the nation’s hotel and restaurant workers, that require tipped servers to get the same minimum wage as all others. In the rest of the country, employers are free to pay servers a lower minimum wage, as long as their pay after tips meets or exceeds the regular minimum. Restaurants that use that compensation model cannot redirect servers’ tips to the back of the house.
Of course, the new provision is best understood as a truce in the long-running conflict over restaurant labor compensation, not a permanent settlement. Advocates of higher restaurant pay are promoting a June 19 ballot initiative that would bring California’s system, with its pros and cons, to the District. For now, though, it’s enough to observe that sometimes politicians surprise on the upside, even if you have to dig through 2,000 pages to find out.