Another California Court of appeal ruled on the issue of tip-pooling in California. In Etheridge v. Reins International California, Inc., the court held that employees who do not provide “direct table service” may participate in tip-pools mandated by employers. (This holding confirms another recent appellate court’s ruling in Budrow v. Dave & Buster’s Of California, Inc. on the same issue.)

The court set forth the issue in the case:

Tip-pooling, a practice by which tips left by patrons at restaurants and other establishments are shared among employees, is a common practice throughout California and the nation. No California statutes expressly address the practice. In this case, restaurant servers challenge the legality of a mandatory tip-pooling arrangement, whereby, as a condition of their employment, the servers must share tips with certain other employees at the restaurant. While the servers do not contest the requirement that bussers share in the tip pool, they challenge the inclusion of employees who do not provide “direct table service.”

The complaint alleged that Reins has a mandatory tip pooling policy by which its servers are required to “tip out” certain categories of Reins’s employees who do not provide direct table service. Specifically, it is alleged that servers are required to pay a share of their tips to the kitchen staff, bartender, and dishwashers.

Plaintiff alleged that because the tip-pooling policy at issue mandated that employees who do not provide direct table service (such as the kitchen staff) participate in the mandatory tip-pool violates Labor Code section 351, which governs gratuities.  

Tip Credits vs. Tip Pools

The Court clearly explained that tip credits and tip-pools are two different items and should not be confused. Tip credits, where the employer applies a portion of the employees’ tips against the employer’s obligation to pay minimum wage (which were not an issue in this case), are not valid in California:

The first is a practice known as a “tip credit,” by which an employer credits a certain amount of the tips received by an employee against the employee’s wages. In other words, when using a tip credit, the employer pays the employee less than minimum wage, with the understanding that the employee’s tips will make up the difference. As will be discussed at length, tip credits against minimum wage are permissible under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (29 U.S.C. § 203(m)); tip credits against minimum wage were once permitted under California law, but were subsequently prohibited by statute. (Henning v. Industrial Welfare Com. (1988) 46 Cal.3d 1262, 1270-1275.)

Under tip pooling, employees who receive tips share the tips with other employees in the restaurant. As the court explained, there are different types of tip pooling arrangements:

This case raises the issue of precisely which other employees may participate in a tip pool. In one type of tip pool, the pool is designed to spread the risk of low tipping patrons among all tipped employees; thus, only tipped employees may participate in tip pools. In another type of tip pool; the pools are designed to share tips with non-tipped employees who are considered deserving of tips, but who, for some reason (perhaps tradition, or location) are generally not tipped by patrons.

Labor Code Section 351 – Gratuities

The primary issue of the case is the interpretation of Labor Code section 351.  The court examined the first California court opinion that addressed the validity of tip pools, Leighton v. Old Heidelberg, Ltd. (1990) 219 Cal.App.3d 1062. The court noted that while the Leighton court was primarily resolving the issue of requiring servers to "tip-out" bussers, that ruling also held that bartenders could participate in tip pools.  The Leighton court also stated that tips belong “to the employee[s] who contributed to the service of that patron.” Therefore, the court held that Leighton’s holding and rational extended to all employees who contribute to the service of customers, not just those who provide direct table service. 

The court also held that common sense dictates all employees should be able to participate in a tip-pool:

But a “direct table service” limitation would allow a busser to participate in a tip pool if the busser clears the plates while the patron is still seated at the table, but not to participate if the busser waits until after the patron has departed. The work is the same; the next patron still starts his dining experience with an equally clean table, but the busser who cleans between patrons would be barred from participating in the tip pool because he does not personally interact with any patrons. This illogical result casts doubt on any “direct table service” requirement.

Is this the last word on tip-pools in California? 

Probably not. Judge Croskey, who provided a concurring opinion, and Judge Klein, who provided a dissenting opinion on the "direct table service" issue, both called for the California Supreme Court to review this issue to provide further guidance.