Application of the FLSA’s Tip-Credit Requirements Remains Hotly Disputed
Over the past year, there has been an increased discussion of Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) requirements for tipped employees. The courts have focused on a number of issues related to tipped employees, including addressing who can participate in tip pools and whether certain deductions may be made from tips. While the FLSA requires employers to pay a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour in most cases, Section 203(m) of the FLSA provides that employers may take a “tip credit” and pay as little as $2.13 per hour to employees who customarily and regularly receive tips, so long as two criteria are satisfied:
the employee’s wages and tips are at least equal to the minimum wage, and
all tips “received” by a tipped employee are actually retained by the employee or added into a tip pool that aggregates the tips of a group of tipped employees.
Notably, 29 CFR § 531.55 states that a “compulsory charge for service . . . imposed on a customer by an employer’s establishment, is not a tip . . . .” However, some states (such as New York) have their own requirements for determining whether a service charge will be considered a “tip.”
Who Can Be Treated as a Tipped Employee?
When a tip pool is covered by Section 203(m) of the FLSA, an employer may not divert tips from tipped employees by including “non-customarily tipped employees” in the tip pools. But whether an employee customarily (and regularly) receives tips may be unclear.
In Montano v. Montrose Restaurant, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit considered a tip pool in which the employer included a “coffeeman,” and the parties submitted conflicting evidence regarding the coffeeman’s duties. The Fifth Circuit concluded that an employee can be part of a tip pool if it can be expected that the customer intended the employee to receive a portion of the tip. Satisfying that requirement depends on such factors as whether the employee had more than a de minimis interaction with the customers who leave the undesignated tips and whether the employee is engaging in customer service functions.
In Schaefer v. Walker Bros. Enterprises, the Seventh Circuit evaluated a plaintiff’s contention that he and other employees at his restaurant (who primarily worked in a tipped capacity) had to be paid the full minimum wage during any time spent performing non-tipped work. The Seventh Circuit noted that the DOL’s Field Operations Handbook states that an employer may pay the tip-credit rate for time that tipped employees spend on non-tipped duties “related to” their tipped work. According to the Seventh Circuit, making coffee, cleaning tables, and “ensuring that hot cocoa is ready to serve” and that “strawberries are spread on the waffles” are activities related to a tipped server’s work. The Seventh Circuit characterized other duties, however, such as wiping down burners and woodwork and dusting picture frames, as “problematic” because they did not seem to be “closely related to tipped duties.” But the time spent on those duties was “negligible” and therefore did not require the restaurants to pay the normal minimum wage rather than the tip-credit rate for those minutes.
Can Credit Card Fees Be Deducted from “All Tips”?
In Steele v. Leasing Enterprises, Ltd., the Fifth Circuit considered whether an employee is receiving “all tips” when an employer deducts the costs and fees associated with collecting tips that are paid through a customer’s credit card.
To offset costs associated with credit card tips, the defendant retained 3.25 percent of any tips paid by credit card. According to the defendant, the costs included not only fees charged by the card issuer, but also the cost of cash deliveries made by an armored vehicle three times per week to ensure that the employees could be paid their tips on a daily basis (as the employees had requested).
Based on prior authority from the Sixth Circuit and a DOL opinion letter, the Fifth Circuit agreed that the defendant could offset credit card tips by the amount of the credit card issuer fees and still satisfy the requirements of Section 203(m). One week later, the Southern District of Ohio reached a similar conclusion in Craig v. Landry’s, Inc., ruling that “controlling precedent specifically permits” the deduction of credit card processing fees as long as the amount of the deduction “reasonably approximates the charge incurred by the employer.”
What Other Fees or Costs Can Be Deducted from “All Tips”?
After approving the deduction of credit card issuer fees from the gross tips in Steele, the Fifth Circuit turned to the question of whether an employer violates Section 203(m)’s requirements if the employer deducts costs other than direct fees charged by the credit card issuers. The defendant argued that employers could deduct the additional expenditures associated with paying credit card tips and still maintain the tip credit. Specifically, the defendant argued that the additional costs that it was incurring in arranging for the payment of tips paid via credit card, such as the cost of the armored car deliveries to its restaurants, could be deducted from the gross tips.
The Fifth Circuit concluded that “an employer only has a legal right to deduct those costs that are required to make such a collection.” While the defendant had no choice but to pay to credit card issuer fees, the costs relating to its thrice-weekly armored car deliveries were discretionary costs resulting from internal business decisions by the defendant. Therefore, deducting those amounts from employees’ tips was a violation of Section 203(m).
It is worth noting the Eastern District of New York added an interesting twist to this principle in Widjaja v. Kang Yue USA Corp. The court had previously ruled that the defendant violated the minimum wage as a result of, among other things, improperly withholding 11.5 percent of credit card tips. In a late-2015 ruling on damages, the court found that the defendant was liable for the difference between the minimum wage and the hourly wage that it actually paid its tipped employees. Moreover, the court in Widjaja held that the wage deficiency could not be offset by the tips actually received by the tipped employees because those tips were not an hourly wage. Consequently, because it improperly applied the tip-credit rule, the employer received no credit against the minimum wage for the tips actually received by its tipped employees.
Is There a Cause of Action for Withheld Tips If the Employer Does Not Take a Tip Credit?
Several years ago, the DOL revised 29 C.F.R. § 531.52 to provide that all tips are the property of the employee and, thus, must be passed along to the tipped employee or a pool of tipped employees regardless of whether the employer has taken a tip credit under Section 203(m). Because the FLSA, on its face, does not specifically prohibit or address wage deductions that do not result in minimum-wage violations, there has been substantial controversy regarding the DOL’s authority to issue this regulation.
Earlier this year, in Oregon Rest. & Lodging Ass’n v. Perez, the Ninth Circuit noted that Section 203(m) of the FLSA is silent as to employers that do not take a tip credit. Therefore, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the DOL has the authority to regulate “tip pooling” practices even if employers do not take tip credits. Conversely, this past summer, federal courts in Florida and Georgia arguably joined with the position taken by the Fourth Circuit and courts in Maryland, New York, and Utah that Section 203(m) of the FLSA does not create a cause of action for improperly withheld tips unless the employer is taking a tip credit.