Hospitality employers nationwide continue to be hit with class action lawsuits alleging failure to properly pay/distribute tips, as well as failure to correctly characterize service charges and automatic gratuities. These lawsuits have the potential to result in verdicts or settlement amounts more costly than virtually any other employment-related matter. As a result, it is important to periodically review what is or is not permissible under the law is it relates to tips, service charges, and automatic gratuities.
Most employers are familiar with the basic premise that a tip is a voluntary amount a guest leaves for an employee over the amount due for the goods sold or services rendered, while a service charge is an amount agreed-upon in advance by a venue for services provided, often in connection with large pre-planned events. However, service charges are treated differently than tips for tax and other purposes, and automatic gratuities add an extra complicated layer in this analysis. A brief synopsis of the differences of these terms from a legal perspective is set forth below: