Restaurant work is hard. Grueling hours, demanding customers and knife’s-edge profit margins all take a toll on employees’ mental, physical and fiscal health. Further complicating matters is the long-controversial tipped-wage system, which allows employers to pay certain workers as little as $2.13 per hour so long as those workers can earn enough in tips to reach the minimum-wage threshold.

In an attempt to resolve pay inequities, and in response to minimum-wage hikes in some areas, a few restaurant owners have tried raising prices and abolishing tips — with mixed results. As debate continues, so will issues such as the following:

Reader 1: My daughter recently took a waitressing job at a major chain. Here are a few of their policies:

1. Waitstaff pay for any kitchen mistakes. If a burger is cooked too long and the customer rejects it, it comes out of the server’s pay.

2. No breaks are allowed for any shifts, including doubles.

3. Tip pooling includes untipped employees, such as hostesses, who make at least minimum wage.

These policies seem questionable at best.

Karla: Here’s what the Labor Department and the Fair Labor Standards Act say:

1. Though it seems unfair to punish the server for a diner’s beef with the kitchen, federal law allows such deductions, as long as they don’t reduce average hourly pay below minimum wage for the workweek.

2. With a few exceptions for certain industries and underage workers, federal law lets employees be worked nonstop. State and local laws, however, may mandate breaks. Encourage your daughter to check.

3. When a restaurant requires workers to pool tips, the pool must include only workers who are “customarily and regularly” tipped; courts and states seem to differ on whether hostesses meet that definition. To determine whether this pooling arrangement is legitimate, individual workers’ duties would have to be examined on a case-by-case basis.

Reader 2: Our restaurant is closing for a week so the floors can be refinished. The owner is renting “pods” to store the furniture and tableware. She is hiring a couple of movers to help pack everything into storage after the last meal. The problem is that she is expecting servers working that meal to stay and help load the pods — for the $2.13 minimum wage.

Karla: According to DOL Fact Sheet 15, tipped workers can be asked to spend 20 percent of their workweek doing non-tipped work, such as sorting silverware. But if the non-tipped work exceeds 20 percent of working hours, the employer must pay straight minimum wage for time above 20 percent.

Thanks to Paula Brantner of Workplace Fairness.

Ask Karla Miller about your work dramas and traumas by emailing Read more @Work Advice columns.

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Pro tip

Restaurant workers can report suspected wage violations to the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division hotline (866-4US-WAGE). They can also visit Restaurant Opportunities Centers United ( for legal resources.