In April of 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) changed its rule defining the general characteristics of tips in an attempt to overrule the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Cumbie v. Woody Woo, Inc. ruling that the FLSA does not impose any restrictions on the kinds of employees who may participate in a valid tip pool where the employer does not claim the “tip credit.”

DOL’s Recent Position on Tip Pool Participation

The DOL’s amended rule provides that tips are the property of the employees, and may not be used by the employer for any purpose other than as a tip credit or in furtherance of a valid tip pool, regardless of whether the employer actually uses the “tip credit.”  Accordingly, the DOL will now find a tip pool to be invalid if it includes employees who do not “customarily and regularly receive tips” – a requirement that the DOL generally interprets to limit tip pools to employees who provide direct service to customers.

Earlier this year, the DOL issued a memorandum stating that it would be enforcing its new rules on tip pools uniformly throughout the country.  Accordingly, employers who have established mandatory tip pools but who do not use the tip credit may find themselves faced with DOL enforcement actions if they permit employees who do not provide direct service to participate in the tip pools.  Those businesses faced with such enforcement actions may find it in their interest to challenge the validity of the DOL’s position on tip pools and argue that it conflicts with the plain language of the FLSA. 

Legal Arguments to Challenge DOL’s Interpretation on Tip Pools

For those businesses seeking to challenge the DOL’s new rule on tip pooling, the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Woody Woo, provides useful guidance.  Specifically, the Court concluded that that the plain language of Section 203(m) of the FLSA imposes limitations on mandatory tip pools only when the employer takes a “tip credit,” and does not state freestanding requirements for all tip pools.  Further, under the U.S. Supreme Court precedent, when a federal statute addresses a particular issue, courts must apply the plain language of the statute and may not rely on a federal agency’s interpretation of the law, particularly if the agency’s interpretation conflicts with the plain language of the statute.  Based on this case law, an employer could argue that the DOL’s position on tip pools is invalid because it conflicts with the plain language of Section 203(m) of the FLSA.  Specifically, the DOL has attempted to extend to all tip pools a restriction that Congress clearly limited to tip pools involving workers for whom the employer claims the “tip credit.” 

The DOL has attempted to get around this argument by claiming that Section 203(m) of the FLSA left a “gap” in the statutory scheme regarding the treatment of tips which the DOL may fill through its interpretation of the law.  Under Woody Woo, the problem with the DOL’s argument is that it mischaracterizes Congress’ clear intent to limit the FLSA’s restrictions on mandatory tip pools to those involving employees for whom the employer claims the “tip credit” as “silence” on the issue of whether those same restrictions apply to other kinds of tip pools.  However, a legislative decision to limit a particular rule’s application to one situation does not create a “gap” for a federal agency, like the DOL, to then apply that rule to other situations.  Indeed such an expansion of the rule would conflict with the limitations on its application that were expressly established by Congress.

While a federal agency, like the DOL, can fill “gaps” left by a statute it enforces, the agency does not have the power to simply make new law.  To the extent that the FLSA is “silent” about the restrictions on mandatory tip pools in situations in which the employer does not claim the “tip credit,” that is because the statute does not address the subject matter at all.  Rather, as the Ninth Circuit noted in Woody Woo, it regulates tip pools only to the extent that they are comprised of employees for whom the employer claims the “tip credit.”  A rule or enforcement position that imposes restrictions on such tip pools does not fill a “gap” left by Congress; it is nothing more than an attempt to create new law – something the DOL cannot do.

Review Tip Pool Practices

In light of the DOL’s enforcement efforts, all hospitality employers should review their tip pooling practices to ensure compliance with both federal (and state) laws.  While the safest approach to administering a tip pool may be to comply with the DOL’s current interpretation, and restrict participation to non-management employees who provide direct service to customers, hospitality businesses that are faced with enforcement actions based on their past practices may find it useful to raise these challenges to the DOL’s position.  A successful challenge to the DOL’s enforcement position can allow hospitality businesses to avoid significant monetary penalties and preserve valid tip pool arrangements that promote cooperation and harmony among their employees.