A recent onslaught of lawsuits involving illegal tip sharing amongst restaurant employees is rocking the restaurant industry. These lawsuits are not new to the industry but they have recently increased in numbers as a result of a few recent, and very substantial, plaintiff/employee successes.
On April 4, 2008, the largest class action suit ever brought by New York restaurant employees, employees sued Starbucks for violating a state law that prohibits management from receiving part of workers’ tips. At Starbucks, “shift supervisors” share the pooled tips with baristas, prompting a suit from a former barista, on behalf of at least 2,000 Starbucks baristas in NY who are allegedly owed over $5 million. The lawsuit was commenced almost immediately after a California ruling, where a state judge found Starbucks liable for $105 million, finding Starbucks illegally enabled shift supervisors to take a share of the tips.
GENERAL RULE: Restaurants in New York State are allowed to pay employees who receive tips as little as $5.00 — less than the federal minimum wage of $5.85 per hour and the New York State minimum wage of $7.15. However, To use this “tip credit”, amongst other things, employers are not permitted to share tips among “agents” of the employer.
This general rule seems straightforward, but it’s not. The law fails to define who constitutes an “agent” of an employer. An owner, officer of the corporation, or a general manager clearly fit this bill and cannot share in tips. But, what about a maitre‘d? a shift supervisor? or an assistant manager? The answer is . . .it depends on their job tasks and responsibilities – not their job title. The Department of Labor (DOL) has stated that an agent, “does not include a mere supervisory employee who does not have the authority to hire or fire.” And just because a maitre‘d has “supervisory” responsibilities over the rest of the dining room personnel does not necessarily mean that the maitre‘d cannot share in employee tips. The DOL will look at each situation on an individual basis, and pay particular attention to whether the maitre‘d (or another employee) “acts in the place of the owner”, by performing such functions as hiring and firing employees, or other managerial responsibilities such as disciplining and setting wages or work schedules.
In its defense, Starbucks argued in California court and again in New York that it’s shift supervisors are not managers (although they are in charge when managers are away and can evaluate baristas in performance reviews), because (i) the customers cannot differentiate between the shift supervisors and the baristas, (ii) the shift supervisors often do the same work as baristas including serving the customers, and (iii) the shift supervisors pay is only 22 cents more per hour. However, the California Court ruled that the tasks and responsibilities given to these “shift supervisors” did indeed make them “agents” of the employer and hence, they were prohibited from sharing in the tips.
Thus, the prohibition of sharing tips with an “agent” of an employer must be very carefully adhered to as the penalties can be severe. As in the Starbuck’s cases and many others, the definition of what constitutes an “agent” is presently being defined and redefined by the courts. If you are an employer and employ a Maitre’d, Assistant Manager, captain, or shift supervisor, play it safe, compensate them fairly – or even magnificently – but keep their hands out of the tip jar.