Jason Zink and the tip pooling lawsuit
For more than two years, Zink was also a bartender at Don't Know Tavern. All of the tips Zink and the other bartenders made went into a collective tip pool, which he said was divided evenly at the end of the night. Since Zink didn't pay himself a salary, he lived off the money he made as a bartender. He and the other bartenders made less than minimum wage, but the tips more than made up for it.
However, it's a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act for an owner or manager to collect a share of the tip pool when their employees are making less than minimum wage.
Zink found this out the hard way, when earlier this year, several of his former employees filed a lawsuit against him, seeking $250,000 in punitive damages. ...
"When you see '$250,000 in punitive damages,' it scares you," Zink said. "It literally made me sick to my stomach. It wasn't even anger. It was just scary, because it's my livelihood. ... I take it very personally."
In the 15 years Zink has bartended, he had never heard of anything like this. He can rattle off several bars in South Baltimore alone where an owner or manager bartends and shares the tip pool.
"Pooling tips is common practice," he said. "Unfortunately, now I know that everything that's common practice might not necessarily be legal."
The lawsuit was originally filed by Tara Gionfriddo, a former employee of Don't Know, as well as five other employees. Since then, three of the plantiffs have dropped off the suit, which leaves Gionfriddo and two others.
"I would bet this is a very common practice, because the truth of it is, as long as it's not policed, it will go on," said Philip Zipin, Gionfriddo's lawyer.
"If you're management and you have a chance to take $100 out of the till every night and no one's calling you on it, why wouldn't you keep doing it? The problem is, Mr. Zink was working these shifts and he felt -- rightly or wrongly -- that he was entitled to his share of the tips. He may have thought that way, but that is simply not what the law provides."
Zink toyed with the idea of going to court, but figures it will cost him as much -- if not more -- money than settling out of court. Since the lawsuit, he has gone back to being the sole bartender at No Idea. He thinks he'll probably end up settling in the coming weeks.
"It's a lose-lose situation for me," he said. "I just want to find out a way to make sure the other bar owners don't have this happen to them."