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BREAKING: Connecticut Supreme Court Rules Restaurant Cannot Apply Tip Credit to Pizza Delivery Drivers

Posted in Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Litigation, Wage & Hour

file0001835967537The Connecticut Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision that will be officially released April 4, 2017, has ruled that employers may not use the “tip credit” for pizza delivery drivers and therefore, the employees must be paid the standard minimum wage.

You can download the decision in Amaral Brothers, Inc. v. Department of Labor here.  The decision is no doubt a disappointment to employers who believe that the Connecticut Department of Labor’s regulations in this area far outstretch the plain language of the applicable wage/hour statute.

The case arises from a request by two Domino’s franchises for a “declaratory ruling” from the Connecticut Department of Labor (DOL) that delivery drivers are “persons, other than bartenders, who are employed in the hotel and restaurant industry, …who customarily and regularly receive gratuities.” The request arises from Conn. Gen. Stat. §31-60(b), which has been amended over the years.

Why would the employer make such a request? In doing so, the employer wanted to take advantage of the “tip credit”, in which employees are paid below the conventional minimum wage, but his or her salary is supplemented by tips from customers.

Originally, as noted by the employer’s brief to the Court: “The DOL denied Plaintiff’s Petition for the following stated reasons: (1) the regulations were valid because they served a remedial purpose, were time-tested and subject to judicial scrutiny…; and (2) the only act of “service” was handing the food to the customer at the customer’s door and so delivery drivers’ duties were not solely serving food as required under Regulations of Connecticut State Agencies § 31-62-E2(c). The DOL’s decision was that only employers of “service employees” as defined by the DOL could utilize the credit, and Plaintiff’s employees were not service employees.

A lower court upheld the DOL’s conclusions “agreeing that the regulations were ‘reasonable’, ‘time tested’, and had ‘received judicial scrutiny and legislative acquiescence’. The court also determined that the ‘minimum wage law should receive a liberal construction.'”  (You can also view the DOL’s brief to the Court here.)

The Connecticut Supreme Court upheld the Department of Labor’s interpretations here finding that the regulations issued by the agency were “not incompatible” with the enabling statute.  In doing so, the Court noted that this is a bit unusual because the employer was contending that the regulations were originally valid when issued, but repealed by implication when there was an amendment to the statute at issue.

The Court’s decision traced the origin of the tip credit in a portion of the decision that only lawyers will love. But then they get to the heart of the matter: “It was reasonable for the department to conclude that the legislature did not intend that employees such as delivery drivers, who have the potential to earn gratuities during only a small portion of their workday, would be subject to a reduction in their minimum wage with respect to time spent traveling to a customer’s home and other duties for which they do not earn gratuities.”

While the court’s decision directly implicates delivery drivers, it only impacts those employed directly by the employer (see also: UberEats, GrubHub etc.).  Nevertheless, in upholding the DOL’s interpretation here, the scope of who falls within the tip credit at restaurants is going to be further challenged in the courts.

Before employers make any further conclusions, Connecticut businesses should also be aware that the scope of the tip credit and of tip pooling is being debated at the federal level as well.  The National Restaurant Association has joined many others in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case on the subject. We should hear shortly whether the Court will accept such a case.

The Court’s decision is yet another reminder that restaurants in Connecticut should review the situations in which the tip credit is being utilized. Issues regarding tip pooling should be reviewed as well.  This case doesn’t answer all the questions that come up in the restaurant context. But in terms of figuring out the scope of the law, it helps to answer (albeit in a manner not helpful to employers overall) some outstanding questions.