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Waiters can now share tips with cooks and other staff

Azteca cook Adalid Coca-Ardaya hands a meal to waiter Fernando Noriega last week in Spokane. Congress has determined that tip pools can now include kitchen staff  such as cooks and dishwashers, bridging the wage gap between front and back of  house staffs. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Azteca cook Adalid Coca-Ardaya hands a meal to waiter Fernando Noriega last week in Spokane. Congress has determined that tip pools can now include kitchen staff such as cooks and dishwashers, bridging the wage gap between front and back of house staffs. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Cooks and dishwashers at restaurants can now benefit from tips just like waiters and other “front of the house” staff thanks to a rollback in federal law.

The policy change enacted last month gets rid of a 2011 rule by the Department of Labor that didn’t allow restaurants to have tip pools to share with “back of the house” employees that wouldn’t normally get tips such as cooks or dishwashers.

Employers are not required to mandate this back of the house “tip pooling,” but now have that option if they choose.

If workers are paid minimum wage, the new rule tucked into the federal budget spending bill allows tipped employees to share with other staff, and outlaws so-called “tip-skimming” by owners, managers and supervisors.

Restaurant and hospitality groups say the rollback will help alleviate pay disparities between the front of the house, and kitchen staff who contribute to the customer experience but don’t receive tips directly.

Anthony Anton, CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association, said allowing back of the house tip pools will reward kitchen staff for their good work.

“(Everyone) can benefit from a customer’s great experience,” he said. “I think that’s a positive for team-building.”

Different restaurants choose various methods for tip pools. Some let waiters choose how much they tip out the kitchen, while others require a certain percentage for the back of the house.

Regardless of how it’s done, many waiters seem willing to share the earnings.

Gates Scott, a waiter at Zoe Coffee and Kitchen in Pullman, said he’s required to give up a certain percentage of his tip for the kitchen staff.

That can be difficult, but he also wants the kitchen to get fair pay. He said tip pooling with the back of the house might be the best way to ensure that.

“The reason I had a good day is also partially because they were really good in the kitchen,” he said. “If they need to get paid higher, then that’s the way it needs to be.”

Sharing with the back of the house staff also can help owners keep good employees, said Carla Barajas, owner and operator at Azteca in Spokane.

“If we can keep our kitchen stable, the heart of our house making a good product, then our front of the house is going to make better tips,” she said.

The law change could be especially helpful for businesses in Washington, Barajas said, because the state doesn’t recognize tips as salary.

That means employers must pay minimum wage regardless of how much waiters make in tips, and that can leave owners with less money to pay the kitchen staff.

Waiters and kitchen staff work together as a team, said Jay Parker, a cook at The Old European in Pullman. The restaurant where he works allows servers to choose how much they tip out the kitchen. He said that tip pools with the back of the house reflect that camaraderie.

“Most servers have been really good about it,” he said. “They know it’s a team effort.”

Terryl Banta, a waitress at Paradise Creek Brewery in Pullman, has worked in the restaurant industry for six years. For her, tip pooling with the kitchen staff seems natural.

“If you’re working at a restaurant where people care about each other and care about the customer’s experience, most people are more than happy to tip out the kitchen,” she said. “It’s important to make sure (kitchen staff) feel putting in all this effort is worth it.”

The rollback had previously been criticized for giving employers the chance to skim off the top of tip pools. But recent federal legislation explicitly states that those tips are to remain with employees.

Even before the federal change, state law mandated employers could not benefit from tips.

Pocketing employee tips was never the goal for business owners anyway, Anton said.

“Owners and managers should never be the beneficiaries of tip pools,” he said. “We never thought that they should be.”