Ronnie Polaneczky: Restaurant's tip plan must not be fresh, because it isn't legal

David Anglin, server at Legal Sea Foods who saw his tips dwindle.
David Anglin, server at Legal Sea Foods who saw his tips dwindle. (RONNIE POLANECZKY / Daily News staff)
Posted: July 21, 2011

DAVE ANGLIN is not the whistle-blowing type. He just wants to work hard at his restaurant job, finish his degree at Temple, then enlist in the U.S. Air Force and become a pilot.

But a new sign posted in the employee area at work didn't sit right with him. He's a server at the Philly International Airport location of Legal Sea Foods Inc., the Boston-based restaurant and retail chain (its motto: "If it isn't fresh, it isn't Legal!").

Effective that day, the sign read, servers would be required to tip $8 per shift to a certain class of worker at the restaurant, to accommodate a minimum-wage increase that had just gone into effect in Philly.

This was a $3 rise over what the servers had previously been required to tip the two workers, whose only job is to roll silverware in napkins for the very high-turnover restaurant located in airport's Terminal B/C Connector.

Anglin calculated that the new policy would cost him $800 per year out of pocket - almost the cost of two credits at Temple.

"A 30-plus-store corporation should not place the burden of rising minimum wages on its employees," said Anglin, 24, who called me after getting nowhere discussing the policy with his manager, Theresa Bova (who refused comment for this story). "It's offensive and unethical."

I doubted that Legal Sea Foods would use those same words. But when I called company bigwigs and told them Anglin's story, they were alarmed enough to fly two representatives to Philly to investigate the weird mandate.

Long story short: The policy, which company marketing director Ida Faber says had been implemented without corporate knowledge or approval, has been revoked. And employees are being reimbursed the money they'd been paying to bring the rollers up to minimum wage.

"We are thankful that our employees brought their concerns forward so that we could enact a swift resolution," says Faber.

So what the heck happened?

Bill No. 100756, that's what.

An amendment of The Philadelphia Code, it requires employers of a specified size and/or income to pay employees 1.5 times the minimum wage - which works out to $10.88 per hour - if the employer leases space or equipment from a landlord (in this case, the airport) that receives financial aid from the city.

Introduced in City Council last fall by Wilson Goode Jr. and signed by Mayor Nutter in January, the ordinance went into effect July 1 and aims to keep city money trickling down as it should.

"When we invest in economic development projects, it's to create jobs," says Goode. "We want those jobs not to be poverty-wage jobs but living-wage jobs."

Where things get confusing is in the restaurant business, in which tip workers, as mandated by Pennsylvania labor law, earn $2.83 an hour. The assumption is that tips will lift their hourly wage well above the current minimum wage of $7.25. But the law states that, in cases where tip workers don't earn at least $7.25 after tips are figured in, the employer must make up the gap.

Somewhere in there is where management at the airport Legal Sea Foods, which is subject to the new Philly minimum-wage law, decided it was up to co-workers, not the company, to bridge the gap with its silverware rollers.

Except Legal Sea Foods doesn't officially have a "silverware roller" position, which seems to have been created expressly at the airport location, according to server Anglin (who shared with me an audiotape he made of his conversation with his manager, who tries to explain why the $8 tip to rollers is needed).

"I think we were supposed to pay the rollers, keep them" off the company radar, Anglin says.

For now, it appears that the rollers will remain employed but be paid the new minimum wage, in full, by Legal Sea Foods.

"This is great," said Anglin yesterday, as he headed into work. "I'm not sure we would've gotten this cleared up if the Daily News hadn't called."

Glad to help keep it Legal.

Email polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

www.philly.com/Ronnie. Read Ronnie's blog at www.philly.com/RonnieBlog.

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