An interesting editorial by Corey Robin in the New York Time (The Republican War on Workers’ Rights) that highlights I think the underlying moral problem of using wealth redistribution to level out income inequality.
Stay with me a moment.
The Robin reports that in
…most states, tipped workers earn an hourly wage that is less than the federal minimum — the federal subminimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 per hour — because they’re supposed to make up the rest in tips. (They often don’t; the poverty rate among waiters and waitresses is 250 percent higher than it is among the general work force.) But non-serving staff who don’t get tips must be paid the minimum wage.
But then the editorial takes an interesting turn.
Republican state legislators have devised a way around that. In 2011, lawmakers in Wyoming introduced a bill that would have allowed restaurants and other employers to force their serving staff to pool their tips; tips would be redistributed among the nonserving staff, who could then be paid the subminimum wage. That same year, Maine legislators passed a bill declaring that “service charges” were not tips at all. Because they aren’t tips, they don’t belong to the serving staff. Employers can pocket them — without informing customers — whether they redistribute them among the staff or keep them.
There are two different issues here. The second of these, Maine legislators “declaring ‘services charges’” are not tips and so “don’t belong to the serving staff” is problem one that will cost all the serving staff money. If so then the employer has (potentially at least) unjustly withheld wages from the wait staff.
The first issue–allowing “restaurants and other employers to force their serving staff to pool their tips; tips would be redistributed among the nonserving staff, who could then be paid the subminimum wage”–raises an interesting policy question. If, as Robin asserts, this is “wage theft” what do we call collecting taxes with the explicit aim of income redistribution?
Why, in other words is it “theft” when employers redistribute wages among employees but it is an expression of “social justice” when the government does? A key moral difference is that in the latter case the redistribution is coercive through the government’s authority to tax. In the former, however, the relationship between employer and employee is voluntary (at least in the formal sense, I understand that in particular cases, the employee may not have any other options but to work for a given employer).
It would seem to me that all things being equal the employer’s actions are at least morally defensible. But if they aren’t, if they are immoral (“theft”) then so too are any and all government programs that seek to less income inequality through a policy of mandated wealth redistribution.