Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade moves to fix tipping law at airport, but union says change will hurt workers

Tipping at Miami Airport

Miami-Dade County was planning to force MIA restaurants to get rid of auto gratuities, citing a 1975 code against soliciting a tip. Waiters say without auto gratuities they make little more than the $5 an hour minimum wage because few travelers tip.
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Miami-Dade County was planning to force MIA restaurants to get rid of auto gratuities, citing a 1975 code against soliciting a tip. Waiters say without auto gratuities they make little more than the $5 an hour minimum wage because few travelers tip.

Miami-Dade commissioners on Tuesday advanced legislation allowing automatic tipping on bar and restaurant checks at Miami International Airport, but the union representing hospitality workers said the change may not protect low-paid employees from a pay cut.

The proposed legislation would allow restaurants to include optional tips on their checks, officially reversing a recent airport directive declaring added gratuities a violation of a 1975 county law.

When the Miami Herald reported on the pending change last week and its severe impact on low-paid servers already shielded from the county’s living-wage rules, the administration of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez scrambled to halt the crackdown and change the law that bars airport workers from soliciting tips.

The proposed legislative change easily passed its first vote at Tuesday’s regular commission meeting, but the details may be the next union fight.

Drafted by Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz, the legislation allows airport restaurants to tell customers that the “suggested tip” on the bill is optional and may be removed. “ The ordinance does not allow MIA vendors “to impose a mandatory gratuity.”

Wendi Walsh, an executive with the local Unite Here union, urged commissioners to allow automatic gratuities or else risk service workers being short-changed by customers opting not to tip. At MIA restaurants with added gratuities on bills, “The receipt right now does not say it’s a suggestion,” Walsh said. “The risk is we go back to the days when a lot of customers chose to remove it.”

Diaz said he didn’t want the airport to mandate tips for customers, or mislead customers into thinking they had to pay a certain gratuity amount. “If the customer feels they haven’t been satisfied for one reason or another, they do not have to tip,” Diaz said.

He said he didn’t want customers fooled into not realizing a tip was included in their bill, but also said it’s fair for restaurants to add an optional gratuity since so many international passengers come from countries where tipping isn’t standard.

“These poor people [working at MIA] get the short end of the stick,” he said.

Diaz’s legislation still needs a committee hearing and final vote before becoming law, but MIA has already retracted its directive to restaurants that they needed to stop adding tips to customers’ bills. The reversal came a day after the Herald’s April 7 story.

Carlos Caballero, who makes just over $5 an hour at a Jose Cuervo restaurant at the airport, said his income doubled after the operator, HMS Host, instituted an 18 percent automatic gratuity on checks in November.

He addressed the board before the vote and said the last-minute halt of the tip crackdown was a major relief. “I feel like I can breathe for a moment,” Caballero said. “I don’t want to go back to how it was before. Whatever I made that day went to a bill.”

Last year, Miami-Dade expanded the county’s living-wage rules covering Miami-Dade workers and contractors to include employees of most tenants at the county airport. While tipped workers at the airport were covered, employers were allowed to pay them less than the living wage ($13.23 with health insurance and $16.40 without it), provided income from gratuities brought their total earnings to the living-wage level.

Walsh said enforcement of that provision is too cumbersome and complicated, while an 18 percent automatic gratuity on restaurant bills reliably gets workers at or above the living-wage level.

In March, airport officials wrote HMS and other restaurant operators and told them they had until April 15 to remove automatic gratuities. MIA director Lester Sola told commissioners Tuesday the airport was contacting restaurants telling them to ignore the March directive.

“We are basically undoing that letter,” Sola said. “We’re not enforcing the policy, in light of the board taking action to allow this practice.”

Miami Herald staff writer Taylor Dolven contributed to this report.

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