Monday, March 31, 2008

Starbucks -- tip sharing absurdity

Some of you may have heard, as indicated in the article at, that Starbucks has been ordered to pay $86.7 million, plus interest, to baristas -- the total to be paid could easily exceed $100 million.

Why? Well, if you frequent any Starbucks you've likely seen a tip container by the checkout so that you can give a little extra to the staff. Those tips are pooled, weekly, then divvied up amongst the staff in proportions that are in line with the amount of time you worked that week. This is handled by the staff themselves, and all of the tip money that comes in is distributed in that way. It's a fair system in some senses -- it allows everyone who works to enjoy a uniform distribution of tips, and so those who work during quiet times aren't penalized by the lower value of tips that would come in during that time.

Why the lawsuit, and the ruling, then? Well, shift supervisors have been included in the tip pool distribution, you see. It is due to the fact that they have some sway over the general baristas that California Law prohibits such sharing.

I've only known the staff at a handful of Starbucks well enough to comment, but I'd be surprised if it was much different elsewhere -- the shift supervisors referred to don't get much more in the way of compensation than a barista, but are required to do the same tasks and then some. To exclude them from the pool certainly lowers the incentive to take on the added responsibility, and in some cases may create an artificial divide between supervisors and staff which wasn't there previously.

It seems to go against the sense of "team spirit" to claim a right to the tips, but exclude one part of that team who's more or less a peer. Store managers, on the other hand, well tips aren't shared with them -- rightfully so, I believe. They do receive notably higher compensation than a barista, and hold the ultimate responsibility for the operation of the store as a whole. They are much more a management figure, holding sway over the staff, than a shift supervisor would ever be.

I may be convinced, with sound arguments presented, that shift supervisors should be excluded at some point. I'll concede that. Regardless of whether that happens or not, though, I think it's ridiculous to ask the corporation to repay something that they haven't received and didn't distribute in the first place. They may have set out the guidelines in the first place, in an attempt to establish a fair distribution system. Those guidelines have been used for years without complaint from the staff I know. No one has felt oppressed or hard-done-by as a result of the system.

With all of this in mind, it seems like a much more reasonable approach to say "Hey, things shouldn't work like that -- you need to revise those guidelines to exclude supervisors." than to impose a ruling requiring them to pay an exorbitant amount in this fashion.

Ignorance of the law is no excuse, of course. Intent, however is also a significant factor in law, too -- you'll have a hard time convincing me that the original distribution system was established with treating the baristas unfairly in mind...far more likely that they wanted all non-management staff to be treated and compensated fairly when distributing tips amongst themselves.

Of course I can say all of this, but at the end of the day I am neither a lawyer, nor a judge.

I would be much more supportive of the action if it were a simple motion to effect change. "It shouldn't be done this way. Change it." With how it's playing out so far, it seems much more like a cash grab which will line a few peoples pockets (probably most notably the lawyers'). I can just picture someone heading it up -- getting staff all riled about some injustice that they'd for the most part never felt or been aware of.

As I take a moment to reflect on what I've written, I stand by much of it -- I am glad, though, to see that there are those who are watching out for peoples best interests, in spite of whether or not they might have alterior motives. It is when people are unaware of their rights that it's easiest for them to be taken advantage of. It seems that there should be a line drawn for how such things are handled, and in this case that line seems to have been crossed.

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