Dear Helaine: Earlier this week, I met one of my gal pals for lunch at a restaurant near my home. As the waiter cleaned the table, a plate slipped and sauce spilled on my friend's dress.
She decided to ask for a credit on our check since she planned to take the outfit to a dry cleaner. The waiter didn't want to do it, but she insisted. At one point as she spoke, I thought I heard him say, "The owner will take this out of my pay." She kept talking, and I don't think she heard. I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing.
When the check came, I added the $10 discount to my tip and didn't say anything to anyone. Now I am wondering if I can ask my friend for the money back. What would you do? — Dining Blues
Dear Dining Blues: Whether it's legal or not for the restaurant to take the money out of the waiter's pay depends on how they are paid. It's absolutely a legal no-no if it will bring the waiter's earnings below the state minimum wage. Tips are also mostly off-limits. As a result, it's very hard for a restaurant owner to do this and remain on the right side of the law. That doesn't mean it doesn't happen — it does, and much too often. Restaurants ding waiters and other staff for everything from broken dishes to customers who skip out without paying the bill.
Obviously, the time for you to figure this out would have been at the time of the mishap. All you needed to do then was simply speak up and say, "Did you say your boss would charge you for this?" as he and your friend went back and forth. You likely didn't want to embarrass your friend, and also, most of us think of these things after the fact. Instead, you made an executive decision to compensate the waiter yourself and not discuss it with your pal.
Since you didn't allow her to make a decision at the time, you can't ask her for the money back now. But you might want to avoid the restaurant in the future for its less-than-ethical treatment of its employees. Accidents happen, and a good owner and management take that into account. If you decide to do that, you should call up, ask to speak to the owner, and explain why you are taking your business elsewhere. Perhaps you can make a positive change in the restaurant's business practices.
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