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Every year, Americans leave more than $30 billion in tips, mostly at restaurants but also at casinos, nail salons and elsewhere. Traditionally, the owners of those businesses have not had much control over how tips are distributed. But the Trump administration is proposing a rule that could change that. NPR's Scott Horsley has more.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: OK, so you're out at lunch, maybe it's a fancy restaurant, white tablecloths, maybe it's the neighborhood diner. Either way, the bill comes, you pull out your wallet. And in addition to paying the tab, you leave something extra. Up until now, the federal government has had a pretty clear position on who that tip belongs to.
HEIDI SHIERHOLZ: The law of the land now is that the tip belongs to the workers who earn the tips, full stop.
HORSLEY: That's Heidi Shierholz, former chief economist for the Department of Labor. And I have invited you to lunch to talk through this because now those tips are at the center of a big legal and regulatory tug of war.
SHIERHOLZ: The department has just released a proposed rule. The main point of this rule is to allow employers to take control of workers' tips. And this rule has really been pushed by the restaurant industry.
HORSLEY: Kurt Huffman is a part of that restaurant industry. He got his start when he was just a freshman in high school.
KURT HUFFMAN: Like I said, I was 15 at the time. So I started washing dishes and then became a line cook.
HORSLEY: Today, Huffman runs more than two dozen restaurants in Portland, Ore. And one of his frustrations is that the people who work in the kitchen often make a lot less than the servers out front. Huffman has tried to compensate by encouraging servers to share their tips with kitchen staff, just as they already do with busboys and hostesses. Most, he says, are happy to go along.
HUFFMAN: We've tried to be very, very careful in just communicating the fact to our servers and our bartenders that the kitchen is a critical part of our business. It is, in fact, the motor that runs the business.
HORSLEY: But Huffman says this voluntary tip sharing only boosts cooks' pay by a few dollars an hour. And he's constantly wrestling with staff shortages in the kitchen. If the proposed Labor Department rule goes through, Huffman could divert more servers' tips and pay kitchen workers more.
HUFFMAN: I think all of us see this as a way to reallocate the tips a little bit more fairly. And it's nice from an ownership perspective to feel like finally we have an opportunity to truly decide where these tips go.
HORSLEY: Critics say the new rule would even allow restaurant owners to pocket the tips themselves. Former waitress Misty Cumbie says that's not what most customers have in mind.
MISTY CUMBIE: I think in general, people assume that the money that they're leaving is for the server or the person behind the counter and definitely not for the owner.
HORSLEY: Cumbie's been working in restaurants off and on since she was 17, and she's seen this tipping issue from both sides.
CUMBIE: You know, I worked in the kitchen for a long time as well, and I understand the challenges of doing that work.
HORSLEY: She agrees with Huffman that kitchen workers deserve higher pay but not, she says, at the expense of servers. When a former employer tried taking the bulk of Cumbie's tips to pay kitchen staff, she sued. And in 2011, the Obama administration issued a rule making it clear, tips belong to the workers who earn them. The new proposed rule from the Trump administration would reverse that, so long as restaurants pay servers at least a minimum wage. That makes Cumbie worried.
CUMBIE: To me, anyway, it doesn't appear that this is really about equity as much as it is about large restaurant conglomerates seeing that they can line their pockets.
HORSLEY: The Labor Department has already received thousands of comments on its proposed rule. Its final decision may determine who keeps the money you leave as a tip. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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