Ontario politician wants to ‘tip’ favour towards restaurant servers

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
A waitress has been rewarded for her years of great service with a tip of 1,091 percent.

When I was in high school, I had a summer job one year as a restaurant busboy.

It wasn't the worst job I've ever had but it probably ran a close second. Besides clearing tables and keeping water glasses and coffee cups filled, I made the coffee and cleaned the giant urns every day, humped boxes of food out of the stockroom and did a myriad of other thankless tasks at minimum wage, which was then $1.25 an hour.

Thankless. That's probably what I remember most. Busboy (bussers, I guess they're called now) ranked just above dishwasher in the restaurant pecking order. The waitresses (sorry, servers) never shared their tips, though some were quick to complain if a table wasn't cleared and reset fast enough.

So I'm torn about a piece of Ontario legislation proposed by New Democrat MPP Michael Prue banning the practice of  "tipping out," requiring servers to turn over a percentage of their tips — and sometimes more — some of which can end up in their bosses' pockets.

It's the third time the opposition MPP has introduced his private member's bill to amend provincial labour law to read "an employer shall not take any portion of an employee's tips or other gratuities."

Prue isn't opposed to servers rewarding other less visible restaurant and bar staff but doesn't think managers should get a slice.

“Most people don’t even know that when they leave a tip, the owners of some restaurants and bars take a cut,” Prue said in a news release, according to CityNews Toronto. “That’s a rip-off and we need to do something about it.”

[ Related: More Canadian restaurants start tacking on an automatic 20 per cent tip to your bill ]

According to a Globe and Mail story last year, when Prue first proposed the ban, tipping out traditionally is meant to set aside a portion of servers' tips to divide among other staff, including cooks, kitchen drudges, bussers like me and the host or hostess.

But Prue said the practice has been abused by owners and managers who take a cut for themselves. Wait staff told him management demands a percentage of a server's gross sales (usually four per cent) whether or not a customer even left a tip.

Amanda Barchard became a symbol for the problem when the veteran server, earning $8.90 an hour, was fired from a new restaurant in Coburg, Ont., for refusing to fork over the tipping-out cut, The Canadian Press reported.

"I also sought legal advice and called the labour board, and it was most disheartening for me to learn that the provincial legislation as it stands now does not support me or protect my tips," she said at a news conference supporting Prue's bill.

"On a busy Friday where I worked two shifts and had $1,800 in sales, my tip out to the owner was $78, which makes it very difficult then to tip out your support staff, so they get affected as well."

It's good to hear Barchard looked after the other people who helped make her customers' dining experience pleasant. And if managers are pocketing the tipping-out money, that's wrong. Profit margins are slim in the restaurant business, so the temptation to pad the bottom line is strong.

Tipping out is already illegal in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, and in New York, which the Globe said began regulating gratuities in 2011.

Servers filed a class-action suit against the owners top New York eatery Le Bernardin, and last year celebrity chef Mario Batali and his partner agreed to pay US$5.25 million to settle claims they illegally took tips, the Globe reported.

[ Related: The diner's guide to restaurant tipping ]

Prue said the tipping-out problem is complicated by the fact that the Canada Revenue Agency considers tips as taxable income, while Ontario does not.

"So when the management skims off the four or five per cent it goes directly to profit and no income tax is paid on that," he said, according to CP.

Liberal Labour Minister Yasir Naqvi would not say if the government would adopt Prue's bill, which died on the order paper twice before, or if it would introduce its own law. But he sympathized with its sentiment.

"I expect when I’m putting a tip that it goes to bartenders, that it goes to servers who work extremely hard," Naqvi told CP. "We need to bring in a legislative mechanism that takes that into account."

I'm all for ensuring underpaid servers get their tips, as long as they also remember the other people who helped to earn them.