Another luxury New York hotel is the latest target in a constant stream of wage and hour class actions against the hotel and restaurant industry challenging the industry's practices relating to tip pools and service charges. At issue in the lawsuit filed in February 2010 is the common practice in the hotel and restaurant industry of charging private dining/banquet customers a mandatory service charge in lieu of the customer leaving a voluntary tip or gratuity on the day of the event. According to the plaintiffs' complaint, a 21.5 percent service charge is added to the customer's bill for the event, but only 15 percent of that amount is distributed to the waitstaff. The complaint asserts that customers are led to believe that the entire service charge is a gratuity to be paid to the employees who worked the event. The plaintiffs also complain about the hotel's practice concerning "special banquet gratuities" that are received from customers and distributed to non-banquet employees, instead of to the waitstaff who worked the particular event. The plaintiffs claim to represent a class of more than 100 employees and seek more than $5 million in damages.
Mandatory service charges and their distribution among waitstaff have plagued the hospitality industry for years. Federal courts interpret the federal law differently and states have enacted their own statutes that place employers in constant uncertainty, depending on where they are located. Under the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a mandatory service charge is not a "tip" because customers are not given the discretion to determine whether to pay it or how much to provide to the server. Accordingly, under federal law, a hotel may retain any or all of the service charge, and the hotel must decide whether to distribute some – or any – of the service charge to an employee, so long as the employee earns at least the minimum wage.
Some state laws, however, vary and require employers to distribute 100 percent of the mandatory service charge to the servers or other members of the waitstaff. In Massachusetts and New York, for example, no portion of the mandatory service charge may be distributed outside of the non-supervisory waitstaff if the customer reasonably believed that the charge constituted a gratuity. In the case mentioned above that was filed recently in New York, the plaintiffs are relying on a 2008 New York State Court of Appeals case, Samiento v. World Yacht, Inc., which concluded that when a mandatory service charge has been represented to the customer as compensation for the waitstaff in lieu of a tip or gratuity, that service charge must be distributed to the waitstaff. In New York, the statute of limitations extends six years, rather than the three years under the FLSA. The Massachusetts Tip Statute, which was amended in 2004 to clarify who is defined as "waitstaff," similarly restricts any non-waitstaff personnel from sharing in the distribution of the mandatory service charge. In 2008, Massachusetts amended its statute to provide for mandatory treble damages for a violation of the wage and hour law.
Employers have received some good news from courts recently. In early February, employers in Massachusetts received a favorable opinion in Hernandez v. Hyatt Corp., when the Chief Judge of the Business Law Section determined that the 2008 amendment calling for mandatory treble damages only applies prospectively. On February 23, 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit concluded that, under the FLSA, a restaurant is permitted to require its waitstaff to participate in a tip pool that redistributes some of the tips to the kitchen staff, so long as the employer does not use the tip credit to satisfy an employee's minimum wage.
To avoid the customer confusion and exposure seen in these cases, banquet documentation given to customers should clearly delineate how much is billed for a mandatory service charge intended as compensation for employees and how much is billed as an "administrative fee" that the hotel retains to cover overhead and other costs. Moreover, hotels and restaurants should communicate to their employees how much the employees will receive of the mandatory service charge and who will share in that service charge. Hospitality employers in Massachusetts and New York should closely monitor judicial developments of their respective state's laws to ensure compliance, as violations can lead to costly settlements and verdicts.
With the flood of class actions, hotel and restaurant employers must make compliance with federal and state wage and hour laws a top priority throughout the remainder of 2010. Conducting regular self-audits, in consultation with legal counsel, should be a best practice for all employers. Every investigation and lawsuit is unique and cannot be defended with a one-size-fits-all defense. Having, as part of your team, counsel who knows the hospitality industry and the unique challenges facing your hotel or restaurant will help keep companies out of court and exposure to a minimum.