April 19, 2008

Tipping Point

Voltaire said we should judge others by the questions they ask rather than by the answers they give. This post illustrates why such wisdom rings true.

On Feb. 24, someone posted a comment in the restaurant section of City Paper’s website claiming that Arbol Café was confiscating the servers’ tips. This sparked a tremendous amount of outrage directed toward Arbol Café. Dozens of people chimed in on City Paper’s site, and on other local web sites, with heated opinions on the topic. Some claimed they would boycott the restaurant. Someone even posted claiming to be the owners of Arbol Café. It generated so much controversy that the Consumerist picked up the story.

My editor at City Paper, Drew Lazor, had a radical idea: he thought it would be interesting to find out whether the allegation leveled against Arbol Café was actually true. Turns out, it was not true. You can read the results of Drew’s investigation here. Briefly, Arbol Café keeps the servers’ tips only during training, which consists of three shifts. The irony of this whole thing is that Arbol Café appears to treat its servers far better than other restaurants because it pays its servers a base salary above minimum wage and then throws the tips on top of it.

Before Drew discovered the truth, he asked me to do a legal analysis as to whether the alleged practice was legal. You can read my analysis here. In short, under Federal and PA labor law, the alleged practice would be legal if there was an agreement in place between the servers and the restaurant and if the restaurant paid the servers a base salary above minimum wage. Practically speaking, though, I don’t know if any server ever would agree to surrender all of his or her tips.

Kudos to Drew for getting to the bottom of the controversy and also to FooBooz for throwing a healthy dash of skepticism on the issue.

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