A State Just Legalized Tip Theft, and It Is a Very Bad Thing

In Depth

Earlier this week, the Massachusetts Supreme Court effectively legalized a particular variety of tip theft by restaurant owners. As should be obvious, this a very, very bad thing.

This ruling is the end result of a 2011 lawsuit brought by three Dunkin’ Donuts employees against owner Constantine Scrivanos, who instituted a no-tipping policy at 44 of his locations. Via Clint Rainey at GrubStreet, even after the policy was put in place (which Scrivanos and his legal team claim was satisfied by the existence of “thank you for not tipping” signs and no further clarification of the policy), some customers continued to leave tips—tips which Scrivanos then began pocketing for himself. The current policy is that any bills or change left as tips for employees must be put into the register along with the rest of the store’s cash. It has to be pretty dehumanizing for the employees to have to see the tips being stolen from them as they hand them over.

The real problem with the ruling is who gets to decide what constitutes a “clearly communicated” no tipping policy? Does tiny, easily-missed signage in one part of the store satisfy the owner’s obligation just because it’s technically visible, the visual equivalent of those high-speed warnings at the end of drug ads that warn you this product may induce moderate-to-severe decapitation? Most coffee place customers are in enough of a hurry—not to mention enough of a caffeine-seeking berserker mist—that they’re not going to bother to stop to read every sign on display. If those well-meaning, sleep-addled customers don’t see the signs and decide to tip out of the goodness of their hearts, why, exactly, should it be legal for the owner to benefit from something that clearly wasn’t intended for them?

Legality aside, it’s also a huge dick move. If a restaurant owner decided to not only implement a no-tipping policy but stick to it full-throttle, why not donate to charity any tips customers still leave, as others have done in similar situations? Regardless of the legality of the situation (and there is no reason this should be legal), Scrivanos looks like a tremendous asshole here. It’s pretty much impossible to see a way to ethically justify stealing from one’s own employees, even if an extremely shortsighted court allows you to justify it legally.

Because people will ask: no, you are not expected to tip at Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, or other similar eateries. No one has ever been tip-shamed* for failing to tip at these places, and the employees are not subject to the tipped sub-minimum wage. However, if you have an extra buck, it’s a nice thing to drop it in the tip jar, and one that will generally make you feel marginally better about yourself and the state of the universe. That being said, no one’s going to get mad at you if you don’t.

Ironically, the existence of that tipped minimum wage actually prevents this story from being a much bigger deal, as it ensures the ruling couldn’t apply to full-service restaurants (since the institution of a no tipping policy would ensure formerly-tipped employees would have to be paid a non-tipped wage). Even a stopped clock.

* This is me every time someone unironically uses this term.

Image via vinnstock/Shutterstock.

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