Tip dancing

A local restaurateur comes up with a way to subvert the minimum-wage law.

THE NEXT TIME you dine at Pike Place Market's Campagne, you might want to tip big—especially if you're planning to pay with a credit card. In response to Initiative 688, the minimum-wage increase passed in November, Peter Lewis, Campagne's owner, is now making his servers pay 2.5 percent of their tips from credit card purchases to him.

A memo from Lewis to the waitstaff explained the principle behind his decision: "First of all, it is important to understand that tips, legally speaking, belong to the restaurant. They are left to you on behalf of the quality of food and service the restaurant has provided."

In person, Lewis says the new policy is fair, since 2.5 percent roughly equals the fee he has to pay to the credit card companies every time a customer uses plastic.

So far, the minimum-wage law has not made dramatic improvement in earnings: The hourly base has only risen 55 cents, to $5.70 per hour. In Campagne's case that would translate into an average increase of $59 per month for each waiter. By deducting from tips for credit card use, Lewis knocks that increase down to $16.50 per month per server.

"This is perhaps an individual reaction to the quiet hysteria on the part of the hospitality industry about the minimum-wage increase," says Rick Sawyer, with the International Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union. "We will see more of this."

Anthony Anton of the Washington Restaurants Association says although most establishments don't saddle their employees with the credit card fee, the practice is both legal and fair. But he also says that the way Lewis is going about it is questionable. Rather than adjust his take to coincide exactly with the credit card fee on each transaction (different credit card companies charge different fees), Lewis is taking 2.5 percent of tips from all credit card payments regardless of the actual fee. Anton says that tips legally belong to the server, who has to pay taxes on them. It's one thing to force servers to pay their portion of credit card fees, but "in no situation," says Anton, "do employers take tips from employees" to cover their expenses.

Oddly, Campagne's servers are taking the new policy in stride. They think Lewis is a terrific boss. He emphasizes that it's a special privilege to work in a classy establishment like his. Once a year he rewards them with a three-day, all-expenses-paid retreat on Orcas Island.

CAMPAGNE ISN'T THE FIRST restaurant in Seattle to hold waiters responsible for credit card transactions. A spokesperson for Serafina says it's becoming an industry-wide practice, one Serafina may soon adopt.

Still, some restaurants scorn it. Gary Jones, a supervisor at Jack's Bistro, says proprietors shouldn't penalize employees for their own decision to offer patrons credit card service. And Wild Ginger owner Rick Yoder says that resentment of charge card fees should be directed toward the credit card companies themselves, not taken out on servers.

Meanwhile focusing on the big enchilada, the Washington Restaurants Association is working to exempt eateries from the minimum-wage law all together. Spokesman Anton says the association is "negotiating" with the Legislature to devise a plan under which tips are considered part of the hourly wage. In the unlikely event that legislators go along, servers could end up with a base pay lower than the minimum wage.

Campagne's Lewis, who is not affiliated with the association, has been lobbying for legislation along those lines all on his own.

 
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