Who pays for diners that dash?

GRAZE, Iowa City

Photo by Flickr user Alan Light, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

A couple months ago, Luke O’Neil penned a story for Slate about the practice of restaurants requiring servers to pick up the bill when one of their tables skips out on the check. As O’Neil details,

Many servers are forced to perform two jobs at once: delivering food and working as a severely undertrained and underpaid security force.

The dine-and-dash is often looked on as a harmless prank, without any serious consequences. Restaurants anticipate the occasional walkout as part of their business plan, right? They should, but instead they often pass the buck to employees—and when you learn that servers can be required to pay for the losses out of their own pockets, it doesn’t seem all that funny. The problem is that there aren’t strong protections against the practice in federal labor laws, and state laws prohibiting wage deductions for loss and theft are too often ignored by employers and unknown by workers….

[I]n many states, restaurants may legally dock wages from servers who’ve already been victimized by dine-and-dashers…. Even in states where the practice is technically illegal, the threat of being retaliated against … is so great that servers don’t stand up to bullying tactics from managers who see workers as disposable, precisely because they’re not required to pay them an actual wage, says Vincent Mersich, a labor lawyer in Pennsylvania. “Restaurants can transfer so much of their operating risk onto employees by paying them significantly less than minimum wage,” Mersich told me. Employers in these scenarios are essentially saying, “ ‘You haven’t assumed enough of that risk; you also have to assume the risk of people walking out on their checks,’” Mersich added. “At that point it seems exceedingly exploitative.”

The restaurant industry is messed up in many significant ways, as the recent fast-food workers strike has reminded us, but problems like wage theft, sexual and racial discrimination, and reliance on undocumented workers are at least explicitly illegal. Docking wages for walkouts should be illegal across the board, too, either via an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act or via more progressive laws at the state level.

Check out the full post here.

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