In Romero v. Top-Tier Colorado LLC, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that tips received by a restaurant server for hours in which she did not qualify as a tipped employee were not “wages” under the FLSA, and therefore should not be considered in determining whether she was paid the minimum wage.

Tipped Employees & the FLSA

The FLSA provides that employers may take a “tip credit” and pay employees as little as $2.13 per hour if: (i) the tip credit is applied to employees who customarily and regularly receive tips; (ii) the employee’s wages and tips are at least equal to the minimum wage, and (iii) all tips received by a tipped employee are retained by the employee or pooled with the tips of other tipped employees.

In Romero, the Tenth Circuit noted that an employee may hold both tipped and non-tipped jobs for the same employer. In those cases, the employee is entitled to the full minimum wage while performing the job that does not generate tips.

Moreover, the Circuit Court cited to the directive in the Wage Hour Division’s Field Operations Handbook stating that, if a tipped employee spends more than 20% of his or her time performing related-but-nontipped work, then the employer may not take the tip credit for the amount of time the employee spends performing those duties.

The Plaintiff’s Claims

The plaintiff in Romero worked as a server at the defendants’ restaurant. The defendants paid her a cash wage of $4.98 an hour, and took a tip credit to cover the gap between the cash wage rate and the federal minimum wage.

The plaintiff contended that she also worked in nontipped jobs for the defendants, and that she spent more than 20% of her workweek performing related-but-nontipped work. Therefore, she concluded she was entitled to a cash wage of at least $7.25 per hour during certain hours, and filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado claiming violations of the federal minimum wage.

The defendants’ moved to dismiss the complaint because plaintiff did not allege that her total weekly earnings, when divided by the number of hours worked, ever fell below the federal minimum wage rate. The District Court reasoned that a minimum wage violation is determined by dividing an employee’s total pay in a workweek by the total number of hours worked that week. Because the plaintiff did not allege facts that would establish such a violation, the District Court granted the defendants’ motion and dismissed the complaint.

In light of that reasoning, the District Court never considered whether the plaintiff was properly considered a tipped employee.

When are Tips Considered “Wages” Paid by the Employer?

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the judgment of the District Court. The Tenth Circuit “assumed” that the district court correctly stated that an employer satisfies the FLSA’s minimum wage requirements so long as, after the total wage paid to each employee during any given week is divided by the total time that employee worked that week, the resulting average hourly wage is $7.25 per hour or more.

But the Tenth Circuit held that the existence of a minimum wage violation depends on the “wages” paid by an employer to an employee. The Court stated that tips are “wages” paid by an employer only when the tips are received by a worker who qualifies as a tipped employee under the FLSA.

Accordingly, the Tenth Circuit reversed the District Court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint. The Tenth Circuit directed the District Court to reconsider its ruling by examining the threshold question of whether the tips received by the plaintiff were “wages” for purposes of the minimum wage requirements of the FLSA.

What is the Impact of an Improper Tip Credit?

Assume, for example, that the plaintiff worked 40 hours in a given week, was paid cash wages of $199.20 (or $4.98 per hour) and received tips of $90.80.

If the evidence demonstrates that the plaintiff was a tipped employee at all times, she was paid wages of $290.00 (or $7.25 per hour) and the defendants did not violate the federal minimum wage.

However, the evidence could demonstrate that the plaintiff performed so much related-but-nontipped work that she did not qualify as a tipped employee at any time. As explained by the Tenth Circuit, the plaintiff’s tips would not count as wages and therefore she was paid $90.80 below the minimum wage. The defendants could then be liable to her for that amount (as well as potential liquidated damages and attorneys’ fees).

The Tenth Circuit’s decision is consistent with the rulings of other circuit courts. Therefore, employers who are taking tip credits therefore must pay close attention to the specific requirements of the FLSA, and should not consider themselves insulated from liability merely by the fact that their tipped employees are earning more than the minimum wage.