Connie Schultz: Saddling servers with restaurant 'dash-and-dine' tabs is illegal
The first time I heard a waitress was forced to foot the bill when a customer skipped out, I thought surely this was the policy of a rogue manager.
That was in early August. After four months of interviews with servers and managers at dozens of restaurants here in Ohio and around the country, I now know otherwise.
A growing number of restaurant patrons are eating meals and then ducking out before paying.
Waiters and waitresses assigned to their tables are getting stuck with the tabs.
That's illegal, too.
As a U.S. Labor Department representative put it an e-mail response to my questions:
"It is a violation for employers to improperly require tipped employees to pay for customers who walk out without paying their bills or for incorrectly totaled bills."
I will not name any particular restaurant because my research indicates that many have violated federal law by requiring their servers to cover customers' unpaid bills. It strikes me as unfair to single out one. I will, however, give my list to the Labor Department.
In several instances, managers told me they didn't know the practice is illegal. Occasionally, managers argued that employees signed agreements to cover unpaid bills, but those are illegal contracts.
Some discussions revolved around what exactly they want their servers to do if they suspect a customer is leaving without paying. Many want servers to hunt down a manager immediately, which requires them to leave behind the other tables they are supposed to be policing.
Some servers told me they occasionally run out to parking lots to stop fleeing customers.
Last year, a waitress in Columbus, Ohio, was paralyzed after she chased an escaping customer and he struck her with his car. In 2003, a waitress in Irving, Texas, ran out to get the license plate of a group leaving without paying a $100 tab. She died after their car hit her. The driver was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Many restaurants, including some chains, do it right. The Perkins Restaurant & Bakery on Cleveland's west side, for example, does not require servers to cover unpaid tabs. But Darin McGlothin, a manager at the restaurant, has worked at plenty of places that do.
McGlothin has been in the restaurant industry for 22 years, and his six previous employers docked servers. He has learned how to discern which customers are likely to be freeloaders.
"It's less common in large groups," McGlothin said. "Sometimes it's an honest mistake; a large party will get to talking and forget who's paying, but they remember and come back. We've had that happen twice in the last three weeks. They're always so embarrassed and quick to apologize."
Parties of two or three, he said, are likelier to scam.
"If one gets up to go to the bathroom and another leaves, they may be planning not to pay. Or if they get jumpy or agitated as bill time comes."
For those employers who plead ignorance of the law, now you know. You can immediately stop charging employees for customers' unpaid bills. You also should reimburse servers who've been illegally socked with customers' tabs.
To thwart dishonest customers, many restaurants are requiring their servers to deliver the bills soon after the meals arrive. So I implore patrons: Try not to bristle when a server hands you the bill long before you've finished eating. Just pay it. You still can order dessert or another drink later.
If you are a server, please don't chase down a customer who just walked out without paying. Not ever. It is not your job, and it could be dangerous.
Finally, if you're a server whose employer is saddling you with bills that customers refuse to pay, the U.S. Department of Labor wants to hear from you. Call its help line at 866-487-9243.
It's a toll-free number because when it comes to justice in the workplace, you shouldn't foot the bill.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the author of two books from Random House, "Life Happens" and "... and His Lovely Wife." Her syndicated column appears Sunday.