With Mayor Ed Murray expecting a recommendation on a minimum wage ordinance by the end of the month, members of his Income Inequality Advisory Committee are now negotiating in earnest. Nothing is set in stone, but the political realists on the committee realize that the proposal Murray ultimately submits to the city council will be for a $15 an hour minimum wage—if in name only. The proposal will also include some sort of multi-year phase-in, at least for “small” businesses; that’s a concession council member Kshama Sawant has already made from her initial “$15 Now” position. Also, expect to see tougher enforcement of wage and tip theft attached to the proposal.
Of course, details! But apart from the main points above, the debate has mostly shifted toward the definition of the word “wage.” Many on the business side of the table are arguing for a so-called “total compensation” minimum wage that would count both tips and the cost of providing benefits towards the employer’s $15 an hour obligation. As I’ve previously explained, that’s bullshit. Total compensation would mean a minimum wage worker earning $3 an hour in “benefits” (however those are defined and valued—again details!) would only take home $12 an hour in cash take-home pay. That’s not $15 hour! And that alone should make “total compensation” a nonstarter for anybody (or any mayor) who seriously claims to support raising the minimum wage to $15.
If we were talking about, say, an $18 total compensation minimum wage, that would be different. But we’re not.
(Also, because the cost of providing health care benefits inflates at a rate many times the Consumer Price Index, a total compensation model would erode the real value of an inflation-indexed minimum wage over time, as health care benefits gradually consumed a larger and larger share of total compensation. Honestly, read my analysis. The numbers are all there.)
Because of these obvious political and policy flaws, I am convinced that some on the committee are proposing total compensation as a mere negotiating tactic (you know who you are), intended to make way for a classic “tip credit.” (Opponents call it a “tip penalty.” What it really is, is a “tip deduction,” but we’ll use “credit” here for the sake of avoiding confusion.) A tip credit would permit employers to deduct from their minimum wage obligation the employee’s tips, up to the difference between Seattle’s minimum wage and the effective minimum wage for tipped employees under state and federal law—currently the Washington State minimum wage of $9.32 an hour.
To be fair, assuming no wage or tip theft, a tip credit would guarantee $15 in cash compensation. So there’s that. And on the vast majority of minimum workers who earn little to nothing in tips, a tip credit would have little to no impact. Considering where we were when striking fast food workers first started making the demand for $15 an hour, a $15 minimum wage with or without a tip credit would be a remarkable accomplishment.
So then why are the folks on the workers’ side of the table so adamantly opposed?
Washington is one of only seven states without a tip credit, a distinction our restaurant industry and its Republican surrogates have relentlessly attempted to “fix.” Throughout much of the rest of the nation, the minimum wage for tipped employees is only $2.13 an hour, an absurdly low figure that inflicts poverty and abusive work conditions on a disproportionately female and minority workforce (70 percent of tipped workers are women!), while providing near-free labor to many restaurateurs. Wage and tip theft is rampant, and tip-dependent workers are forced to put up with all sorts of humiliation (and even outright assault) in order to secure the best shifts, and earn the highest tips.
Yes, the problem is with our tipped culture as much as it is with the tip credit, but a tip credit only makes things worse. Since the first $5.68 an hour of a worker’s tips would go straight into the employer’s pocket (as a deduction from their $15 obligation), any employee earning less than $5.68 an hour in tips (and most tipped employees do) would cost more to employ. Thus there would be even more pressure on a waitress to unbutton another button on her blouse in order to lower her employer’s labor costs.
I’ve got a daughter. Do I really want her being forced to show a little extra cleavage in order to keep her job, let alone up her hourly take-home pay? No.
So while $15 an hour with a tip credit would be a helluva lot better for most minimum wage workers than $9.32 an hour without, worker advocates and labor representatives simply don’t want to set the precedent that tip credit is an appropriate policy. They rightly fear giving state Republicans and squishy pro-business Democrats the ammunition to impose a tip credit statewide—a policy that would lower the income of Washington’s tipped workers everywhere outside of Seattle. That’s simply unacceptable. And they are also looking to set a good example for the cities and states that will inevitably attempt to follow in Seattle’s $15 an hour footsteps.
A tip credit is bad policy. It incentivizes wage and tip theft (an incentive I will illustrate in a subsequent post). It deceives consumers (who have no means of knowing if their tips are increasing the incomes of servers, or just decreasing the labor costs of employers). It helps perpetuate an unjust and abusive system. It is a totally arbitrary policy created in 1966 to buy off the National Restaurant Association (“the other NRA”) from opposing a federal minimum wage hike. And that is exactly what the Washington Restaurant Association and its surrogates are attempting today.
All that said, there may be room for a little compromise. But I’ll save that discussion for another post.