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Wage & Hour Law Update

The 20% Rule For Tipped Employees – Eighth Circuit Invited to Decide Whether To Adopt USDOL Position

In the food service industry, an employer can take a tip credit against the minimum wage for customarily tipped employees, such as servers, bus persons and bartenders.  Under federal law, a restaurant can pay employees holding such positions $2.13 per hour, rather than $7.25 per hour, as long as the employees receive sufficient tips to make up the difference and the tips are only retained by customarily tipped employees.  For years, an issue that has bedeviled industry employers is how to handle prep time and clean-up time as in most establishments there is a period of time pre and post-shift and potentially even during busy hours, in which customarily tipped employees perform prep work and maintenance work.  Can a tip credit be taken for the entire shift?

The United States Department of Labor through its Field Operations Handbook has long taken the position that an employer may take a tip credit for time spent on prep and maintenance only if it consists of less than 20% of the employee’s shift.  The United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri recently addressed this issue, and upheld the USDOL’s position. However, the court stayed the pending FLSA action (involving over 5,000 plaintiffs) and allowed an immediate appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.   If the appeal is accepted, the Eighth Circuit will determine whether the USDOL’s position is consistent with the language and intent of the Fair Labor Standards Act.   

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The Circuit court would have to balance the conflicting positions of industry employers with that of employees and employee advocacy groups.  Industry employers assert this prep and maintenance work is part and parcel of the job duties that result in tips and accordingly the key inquiries should be solely whether the non-tipped duties were part of the continuum of the tipped duties (i.e., the direct customer service duties) and whether the individual received sufficient tips to make up the tip credit.  Employee advocates argue that the 20% rule provides employers with necessary leeway to assign non-tipped duties during a shift, but provides an inappropriate windfall by only having to pay a subminimum wage for non-tipped work that should be compensated at the standard minimum wage or higher.  See Fast v. Applebee’s Int’l, Inc., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 19571 (W.D. Mo. Mar. 4, 2010).

Of course, at all times, state law must be consulted.  Some states do not allow any tip credit; other states allow a lesser tip credit than federal law and many states impose tangents on its application.  For example, in some states the tip credit cannot be taken for any hour in which more than a de minimis amount of prep or maintenance work is performed.