California law treats “tips” (defined as any discretionary gratuity left by a customer for a server) as a strange kind of compensation — which may belong to the employee who initially received the tip, other employees involved or, for certain purposes, even the employer itself. Given the confused property rights involved, businesses are often unsure how tips should be handled.

The Legal Status of Tips.
The Labor Code states unequivocally that “Every gratuity is hereby declared to be the sole property of the employee or employees for whom it was paid, given or left for.” (Lab. Code § 350). Yet, California courts have also reached the seemingly contradictory conclusion that employers may lawfully require that this “sole property” of the employee must be shared with other employees. Moreover, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and state and federal tax withholding rules treat tips not as direct payments from customers to servers, but rather as a form of “wages” paid by the employer.

California restaurateurs are currently experiencing a wave of class action lawsuits seeking damages for illegal “tip pooling.” These lawsuits usually allege that the employer has violated the law by permitting ineligible employees to participate in the tip pool. According to these lawsuits, employees are ineligible for tip pooling where they were either not directly involved in providing any service to the customer who left the tip or they are “agents” of the employer.

Labor Commissioner’s Position On Tip Pooling.
According to the most recent non-binding opinion letter issued by the California Labor Commissioner on the subject, a tip pooling arrangement is permissible so long as it is a “fair and equitable” system that has “a correlation with prevailing industry practice.” (September 8, 2005 Op. Letter of Donna M. Dell). But the Labor Commissioner further opines that any tip-pooling policy must also comply with the following requirements:

  1. The tip pool should include only “those employees who contribute in the chain of the service bargained by the patron;” and
  2. The tip pool should exclude any supervisory employee “with the authority to hire or discharge any employee or supervise, direct, or control the acts of employees.”

Although not legally controlling authority, the Labor Commissioner opinion constitutes good advice for any employer seeking to avoid lawsuits. For the California’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement position on tip pooling, visit their website here.

Avoiding Liability From Tip Pooling Lawsuits.
Employers can take steps to prevent and/or minimize liability for tip pooling claims. Here are a few items that employers can consider in order to minimize the liability regarding tip pooling.

  • Employers should consider implementing a policy stating that all tips are the sole property of the waiters, and employees are free to enter into any voluntary tip pooling arrangements with co-workers on their own.
  • Employers should consider notifying patrons on the menu or on the receipt that any tip left may be distributed according to a tip pooling arrangement, unless the patron affirmatively indicates that his or her tip should only go to one person.
  • Regardless of the employer’s policy on tip pooling, the employer should implement and enforce a policy that the employer’s supervisory employees are always prohibited from sharing in tip pools. For purposes of this policy the operative definition of a supervisor is any “person other than the employer having the authority to hire or discharge any employee or supervise, direct, or control the acts of the employee.”

As a general caveat, however, each case has unique facts and may present issues not addressed in this article. As a result, employers should seek competent legal advice before implementing a new policy regarding tip pooling policies.