Can a restaurant in Virginia legally require servers to be financially responsible for a walk-out meal? The money for that meal, in this case, comes directly from that night's tips (whether or not they are making at least minimum wage at the time is unknown). What resources are available for the management and servers to learn more about this?
– E. Morris, Wild Wing Cafe, Charlottesville, Va.
In this column, I’ve previously addressed whether it is allowable—or advisable—to charge servers for their mistakes. In short, it varies by state and the specifics also vary—from freedom to charge servers for mistakes, provided the charges do not take them below full minimum wage (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida and Georgia, for example); to never or almost never allowed (Alaska, Colorado, California, Delaware and others); to allowed under certain circumstances, such as if an employee agrees to such a policy in writing (Arizona, Connecticut and Idaho, to name a few).
In your state of Virginia, according to Avvo.com, you can be responsible for these charges “Only if you agree (in writing) that your employer can deduct from your pay for the mistake.” While employees might think they would never agree to something like that, it is often included as part of the employee manual sign-off or other employment agreement. You should also know that the laws are often different in the case of negligence or misconduct. So, for example, while you might not normally be responsible for the cost of a dine and dash, if you were getting stoned out back by the dumpsters when it happened, it might be a different story.
Beyond what is legal, my advice would be to think about what is responsible in terms of a policy for dine-and-dash guests. Let’s treat them for what they are: thieves. While charging employees may make the occasional bad server more manageable for the operation, a server who misses a fleeing guest because she or he is busy with other duties—such as picking up food from the kitchen or giving another guest attention—should not be held responsible, in my opinion. It is a better policy to work on preventing the problem through good record-keeping, good security practices and cameras, adequate staffing and strong management oversight. In the event someone does steal a meal, I would recommend alerting the police as you would in other instances of theft. Doing so reinforces that you have no tolerance for illegal activity, whether among your employees or guests, and lets your team know you have their back, a benefit that can be worth much more than the cost of the stolen meal.
More on server responsibility for dine and dash here.