Should servers share their tips? These restaurant owners think so

Credit: Dreamstime/TNS

Credit: Dreamstime/TNS

A group of Fresno restaurant owners support the creation of tip pools that would let cooks and dishwashers get a share of the extra money customers give to servers.

Until a recent change in federal law, servers and bartenders only could share their tips informally with kitchen workers. In some cases, they were directly forbidden by law from sharing with certain workers.

The practice created a big pay disparity between two sets of employees, said Dave Fansler, owner of Pismo’s Coastal Grill, Westwoods BBQ & Spice Co. and Yosemite Ranch.

At his restaurants, kitchen workers make $11 to $18 hourly, and several chefs are on salary, he said. Servers often take home $35 an hour when tips are included. (Some states pay servers wages as low as $2.13 an hour, counting on tips to make up the difference. California law, however, says servers must be paid the state minimum wage of $10.50 for small companies and $11 for larger companies, and tips are earned on top of that.)

“It just makes for a ridiculously unfair comparison,” Fansler said. “We’re just bringing an awareness to it. This is something that’s been pretty backwards … for a long time.”

There are people on both sides of the issue, with some workers viewing the changes as stealing tips from the people who earned them, or as a way for employers to pay less money out of their pockets.

The changes in the law allow restaurants to set up formal systems for sharing tips. That might take the form of a standard percentage of sales going to the kitchen workers, or a percentage of the tips earned by servers and bartenders going to the kitchen workers, Fansler said.

Such systems would be voluntary and restaurants would need to create their own at each workplace. Fansler said he’d like to see kitchen workers get a boost of $3 an hour.

That would mean servers earn $3 an hour less.

“Big deal, they’re going to go from $38 to $35,” he said. “I’m not going to lose sleep over it. It’s only fair.”

Although the first version of the law left a loophole that would allow restaurant owners to keep workers’ tips, the final version of the law bans restaurant owners and managers from keeping the tips for themselves.

Fansler and other restaurant owners and managers of several high-profile restaurants met recently and put out a statement supporting tip pooling.

The group also included the top bosses at Five Restaurant, Parma Ristorante, Annex Kitchen, Cracked Pepper Bistro, Ovidio Ristorante Italiano, Brahma Bull, Wassabi, Campagnia, Elbow Room and Riley’s Brew Pub.

The California Restaurant Association supports expanding tips to kitchen workers.

Sammi Hicks, a server at The Bottleneck Bistro, a new restaurant in Old Town Clovis, said a system that split tips would be fair.

“No one really sees what goes on in the kitchen. The kitchen can get backed up and overwhelmed and they’re working just as hard as we are,” she said. “I don’t think it’s fair that I’m leaving with $200 (in tips) in my pocket while my cook is leaving with nothing.”

Still, some people oppose tip sharing. Often they are reluctant to speak publicly because they don’t want to be seen as criticizing their employer or risk being fired. Some servers say anonymously on Reddit that they earned their tips and should be able to keep them.

Fresno bartender Bobbi Lechman, who did not want to reveal publicly where she works, said bartenders are tipped because they are working directly with customers. She works to form bonds with regulars that lead to good tips, and she has to deal with difficult customers, too, she said.

“I don’t want anybody touching my tips,” she said. “I work extremely hard for those, I form personal relationships with customers. … I don’t want managers telling me how I have to disperse the money that I worked so hard to make.”

Lechman said she respects kitchen workers and knows they are an integral part of the business. But when she asks them if they want to become a server or bartender to earn more money, they tell her no. They don’t want to deal with the public, she said.

Some feel tip pooling is a way for restaurants to pay kitchen staff more, but not pay any of that money out of their profits.

“In essence, we’re the ones that are paying the cooks more, not the restaurant,” Lechman said.

When the U.S. Department of Labor asked for public comment about the original tip pooling proposal, thousands said they opposed it.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra also filed a 12-page letter with the U.S. Department of Labor opposing the first proposal, in part because employees would lose billions of dollars of income.

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