Seyfarth Synopsis: If it becomes law, a new bill will expand the FLSA’s tip provisions into areas traditionally regulated by state law and create new areas of ambiguity that could be a breeding ground for yet more wage-hour litigation.

We have been covering the saga of a controversial 2011 DOL regulation that gave employees the right to receive tips even when they were paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. As courts agreed again and again, the rule was contrary to the FLSA’s plain language and inconsistent with its remedies. In late 2017, the DOL proposed to rescind the rule, noting concerns about its scope. But that proposal has been highly politicized and labeled an attack on workers, authorizing employers to pocket employees’ tips (even though federal law never regulated an employee’s right to receipt of tips, even before the rule).

Ultimately, the fallout around the DOL’s 2017 proposal has resulted in a proposed law amending the FLSA called the Tip Income Protection Act of 2018, announced in principle on March 6, 2018 and receiving bipartisan support in Congress as well as from Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta. The bill has been added to the omnibus budget spending bill that the House passed yesterday and the Senate passed this morning. (The Tip Income Protection Act’s text begins on page 2,025 of the bill.) Barring a presidential veto, the bill will become law.

The Tip Income Protection Act amends the FLSA by adding a provision to 29 U.S.C. § 203(m) that states:

An employer may not keep tips received by its employees for any purpose, including allowing managers or supervisors to keep any portion of employees’ tips, regardless of whether or not the employer takes a tip credit.

The Act further creates a remedy for violating this provision “in the amount of the sum of any tip credit taken by the employer and all such tips unlawfully kept by the employer, and an additional equal amount in damages” and imposes a civil penalty of up to $1,00 for each violation.

As currently written, § 203(m) only regulates tips when the employer has taken a tip credit against its minimum wage obligations, and the FLSA only provides a remedy for the unpaid minimum wage (not for the amount of the tips retained). The Tip Income Protection Act thus expands the FLSA’s tipping provisions from ensuring tipped employees are properly notified of any tip credits and paid minimum wage to guaranteeing that employees are paid the tips they receive in full.

The proposed Tip Income Protection Act is a major deviation from the core purpose of the FLSA. Since its enactment in 1936, the FLSA’s remedial purpose has been to: (i) ensure that all employees are paid at least the federal minimum wage, (ii) ensure that employees are paid at a rate of at least 1 1/2 times their regular rate of pay for all hours worked over 40 in a workweek, unless an exemption applies, and (iii) prohibit unlawful child labor. Never has it been the FLSA’s aim to ensure that employees are paid all of their wages. That historically has been left to the states. Indeed, if an employee makes at least the minimum wage and overtime according to the FLSA’s requirements, the FLSA can provide no further relief. The FLSA’s monetary remedies are currently limited to “unpaid minimum wages, or their unpaid overtime compensation, as the case may be, and in an additional equal amount as liquidated damages.” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). By allowing employees to recover the full amount of tips, the Tip Income Protection Act represents a major departure from the purposes of the FLSA.

Perhaps the bigger concern with the Tip Income Protection Act as written is that it is vague and will leave employers scrambling to understand how the new law applies to them. First, the bill states “managers and supervisors” are prohibited from sharing any portion of employees’ tips and thus cannot participate in a tip pool. But the bill does not define “managers and supervisors,” and there are various ways in which these terms are interpreted in different contexts: does a lead bartender who can’t hire or fire employees, but serves as a manager-on-duty when the owner is not around and who also primarily serves customers, get to share in the tip pool? when he is acting as a manager? or never? Additionally, the bill selects the ambiguous word “to keep” as the operative commanding verb. Restaurants and their agents are not allowed “to keep” employees’ tips. Is “keeping” tips limited to circumstances in which the employer actually uses the tips for its own purposes? Or would it also apply to the distribution of tips to other employees, as appears to be the case for tips distributed to “managers and supervisors”? Would “improper” tip pools be subject to the new standard or the old one?

The Tip Income Protection Act appears to respond to fears that no federal regulation of tips opens the floodgate to pocketing employee tips. But tips have and will continue to be regulated by state law; indeed, federal law has never regulated wage payment generally and the source of that protection has been state laws. Although its sponsors are characterizing the bill as restoring a right for employees that was created by the Obama DOL, that right never existed in federal law (and apparently has not needed to exist in federal law until now). It only existed in the form of an administrative rule that exceeded agency authority and was largely rejected by courts.

Finally, the bill appears not to disturb the DOL regulations’ definition of a tip and guidance that “a compulsory charge for service, such as 15 percent of the amount of the bill, imposed on a customer by an employer’s establishment, is not a tip.” 29 C.F.R. § 531.55. No new definition of “tip” would be added to the FLSA as a result of the bill, and service charges should be spared from the bill’s new rules.