While a significant percentage of employees’ claims for gratuities emanates from the food service and hospitality industries, other industries, including Aviation, are not immune. Baggage handlers in Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania all have asserted claims challenging industry tip practices, alternatively alleging that the amounts paid by customers for curbside check-in are gratuities (which allegedly have been misappropriated by the employer) or that they are service charges which discourage the payment of additional gratuities (thereby decreasing their compensation below the minimum wage). In a recent decision, a federal court ruled that the Federal Airline Deregulation Act does not preempt the plaintiffs’ Pennsylvania state law claims for service charges allegedly misappropriated by their employer. Thompson v. US Airways, Inc., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 59088 (E.D. Pa. June 15, 2010).
In Thompson, the plaintiff skycaps alleged that the airline’s 2005 imposition of a mandatory $2 fee per bag (paid to the airline) caused a sharp decrease in tip income, causing their income to dip below the minimum wage and serving as a functional misappropriation of tips. Id. at * 4. As a threshold legal matter, the airline argued that the plaintiffs’ claims for wages under state law would have a "forbidden significant effect" on airline prices, and thus were preempted by the federal law (which was designed to ensure that states did not undermine federal airline deregulation through state regulation). Analyzing three different decisions on the issue with different reasoning from federal courts in Massachusetts, Judge Gene Pratter denied the airline’s motion to dismiss and determined that a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs would simply result in a modification of baggage handling practices, and would have only a tangential, remote impact on price, if any.
While the court’s decision did not address the merits of the Thompson skycaps’ claims, the litigation reminds .all employers of tipped employees of the need to ensure legal compliance and transparency in regard to gratuity practices.