Gratuitous Behavior

Here's a tip for restaurateurs: Before you cut into your waitstaff's wages, check state regulations.

Let's say you earn a decent salary--on paper, at least. But each payday, your employer deducts a couple hundred bucks to tip your secretary, the payroll director and the guy who cleans your office. After all, your employer explains, those people are your support staff--you couldn't get your job done without them--and they deserve to benefit from those earnings of yours that they help make possible, even if they already receive paychecks of their own. In addition, your boss says, he's going to deduct another hundred or so to cover the cost of running the business.

How long do you think you'd put up with that?
Former waiter Gary Rymer says he had put up with it for seven months when he finally left Budapest Bistro this past March. Until then, he alleges in a lawsuit filed two weeks ago in Denver County Court's Small Claims Division, Budapest Bistro owner Rudi Hellvig kept between 20 to 30 percent of his tips. "Every night when the tips were added up, Rudi took out a percentage of our earnings," Rymer says. "At first he said it was to tip out the maĒtre d', the busboy and the bartender, but I pointed out that I was usually my own busboy and bartender. Then he told me that he was taking money out of my tips to pay for the 2 to 4 percent processing fees that credit-card companies charge restaurants for the privilege of using their company. Basically, I was getting punished for having customers who used credit cards to pay for their meals. But I really needed the job at the time, and so I felt like I had to put up with it, even though I kept mentioning it to Rudi."

The 44-year-old Rymer began working for the Hellvigs in August, when Rudi and Anna Hellvig opened their Budapest Bistro at 1585 South Pearl Street. "When I started, Rudi said something vague about tipping out the busboys and such, but it was not specific," says Rymer. "He certainly didn't tell me it would be 30 percent, and there was no mention made of the fact that the money would be taken out even if I did my own busing and bartending, which I did a lot of. I've been in the restaurant business for twenty years, and I've come across this before, but not usually so blatantly a case of someone just trying to keep money for themselves."

The Hellvigs say they've been handling tips this way since they started their first restaurant, Csardas, back in 1983. "Whoever gives you a service, that person has to be paid, even if it's me, the owner," Hellvig says. "If someone's doing cappuccinos for you, then that person has to be paid. If someone's picking up dishes from your table, that person has to be paid." Of course, the people performing those services make minimum wage--now $5.15 an hour--or more, compared to the waitstaff's $2.02 an hour. "But you know that waiters and waitresses make way more than minimum wage," Hellvig adds. "And it is only right that they share with the people who help them."

Hellvig says he decided to make the sharing official after he noticed that waitstaff members were stingy with their tips. "When we first had Csardas, I knew that there were waiters making more than $100 a night, and they were only handing over a couple of dollars to these people who were knocking themselves out to provide a service for them," he explains. "So we said that it wasn't fair and started to pool all the tips, withdrawing a percentage to give to the support staff. In all these years, no one has complained except Gary."

And Rymer complained not just to the Hellvigs, but to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment's Division of Labor Standards, where the case was assigned to compliance investigator Dorothy Lovett. Rymer says Lovett told him that while the Hellvigs' practice of withholding tips didn't break any federal or state laws per se, it could be a violation of state labor department standards. "Dorothy Lovett said that the department couldn't really do anything to the restaurant because it wasn't a huge deal," he adds, "but that I'd probably be successful in small claims." So he filed suit there, claiming that the Hellvigs owe him $1,500 in back pay, an amount he says represents 30 percent of the tips he earned over seven months. (Lovett is on vacation, but her participation in the investigation is confirmed by her boss.)

In the process of her investigation, Lovett contacted the Hellvigs and ordered them to turn over documentation of their wage payment, which they did. "We didn't do anything wrong," Anna Hellvig says. "I do the bookkeeping, and I know for a fact that we did nothing wrong." Both Hellvigs deny that they ever withheld tip money to pay credit-card processing fees. "That's a lie," says Rudi. "Gary is making that up. But we still take out 20 percent. It used to be 30 percent, but we lowered it around Christmas. I know my rights, and it is within our rights to take money for the host, the busboys and the bartender."

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