Ronnie Polaneczky: Here's a tip: Support workers

Posted: November 17, 2011

TODAY IS the six-week anniversary of Occupy Philly's tent-pitch at Dilworth Plaza. Sadly, the movement, begun with such honor, has attracted denizens so weird, some like to smear the place with human excrement.

Can't you just hear their chant?

What do we want?

Poop on the walls!

When do we want it?

Now!

Clearly, Occupy Philly's public image needs a re-boot. So I have a suggestion, aimed at level-headed occupiers disgusted that their movement's medium has been hijacked by interlopers.

Why not attend today's City Council meeting and support Bill No. 110341, which will be voted upon? Doing so would do more than get you out of the cold for a while. It would also aim a laser on your Holy Trinity of foes:

Greedy banks, grabby bosses and exploited workers.

Also known as the Gratuity Protection Bill, the proposed law, crafted by Councilman Jim Kenney, forbids employers to use workers' tips to help pay the fees that banks charge for allowing credit-card use at business establishments.

The practice is more common than you'd think in the restaurant industry (although the bill also applies to taxi companies, salons and other places employing tip workers).

Say you plan to tip your server $10 on a $50 restaurant bill. If you use your credit card to pay the total, the bank issuing the credit card - say, Citibank - charges the restaurant a transaction fee.

Many restaurants actually pay a percentage of that fee with the tip that's included in the total payment. Not that you'd know it, since restaurants don't disclose that info.

Per transaction, the fees might be small. But over a shift, they can total $2 to $5, depending on whether the restaurant is down-home or upscale. Multiply that over months or years, and we're talking thousands in lost income for waiters and waitresses, for example.

That's quite a hit for those earning the state's minimum wage of $2.83 an hour for tip workers.

"I bet I've lost $10,000 in tips to credit-card fees," says "Zoe," a longtime restaurant employee. She asks not to be identified for fear of backlash at her job with Starr Restaurants, which owns 20 Philadelphia eateries. Its founder, Stephen Starr, opposes the bill (no one from the company returned a call for comment).

"We're told that we're 'private contractors,' so they can pass part of the fee to us," says Zoe. "But it's not like we can tell customers, 'I'm a private contractor and I don't accept credit cards at my table.' We have no choice. Accepting credit cards is part of the company's cost of doing business."

That's what Kenney thought, says his legislative aide, Sarah Sachdev, when he got wind of the practice last winter.

"He was shocked," says Sachdev. "The more restaurant workers he talked to, the more he felt that a bill like this is needed."

Sachdev says the bill appears to have strong support among Council members. But she expects vocal opposition from Starr, who was expected to attend today's session, and from other restaurateurs who say the bill unfairly targets their industry.

"This is business as usual in Philly," says Kevin Meeker, owner of Q BBQ & Tequila, in Old City. "You've got these politicians who won't get rid of DROP, but they'll go after us. They pretend to be all for the little guy. But we're the people who actually employ the little guy. They keep jamming new laws down our throats."

He points to the 10 percent liquor tax his industry pays to support the school district, which then makes an annual wreck of its budget.

"Look how well that's worked," he snorts.

The difference with Kenney's bill is that it returns to workers the money that patrons intended for them in the first place.

Some restaurant owners, like Paul Kimport, don't need a new law to help them understand that. He co-owns Johnny Brenda's, in Fishtown, and Standard Tap, in Northern Liberties.

Years ago, as a server at Striped Bass, Kimport routinely lost portions of his tips to credit-card fees incurred by the restaurant. When he opened his own eateries, he said, it never occurred to him to ding his workers the way he'd once been dinged.

"I'd rather have goodwill with my employees," he says, "than some extra nickels and dimes."


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

www.philly.com/Ronnie. Ronnie's blog: www.philly.com/RonnieBlog. On Twitter, follow RonniePhilly.

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