Tampa restaurant paying more than $70K in back wages after feds investigate

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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A family-owned business that’s already struggling during the coronavirus pandemic now has to come up with more than $70,000. The feds say the Tampa-area restaurant had managers illegally dipping into the tip jar, but the business told WFLA they’ve done nothing wrong.

Bars and restaurants have been hit especially hard during the pandemic. But when the U.S. Department of Labor came knocking, the ride got a whole lot bumpier for the Tampa Bay Brewing Company.

“I think that’s what makes it so much harder. It’s just a family just trying to do the right thing,” said Jeffrey Hall with the Tampa Bay Brewing Company.

The Tampa Bay Brewing Company started in 1996 in Ybor City. But 2020 was the most challenging year as the owners tried to keep two locations open.

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Hall is the general manager at the location in Westchase. They just agreed to pay more than $70,000 in back wages to 36 employees.

“We fight it, the money goes to the lawyers. Or we could at least give it to our employees, so it seemed like the more prudent thing in a year like this,” Hall said.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, federal law was broken when managers dipped into a tip pool. That’s hard-earned cash reserved for workers — like waiters and bartenders — who typically get less than minimum wage.

Hall says one person was involved, and they weren’t truly a manager, but a lead bartender.

“That’s the challenge of a decision like this … it almost hinders people from being able to help,” said Hall. “I’m not saying that the law is incorrect, I’m just saying it gets very gray.”

Employment attorney Terin Cremer helps businesses turn the gray into black and white.

“Anytime you have an invalid tip pool, this can be really scary for an employer,” Cremer said. “If the Department of Labor comes knocking and it’s over a wage an hour issue, it’s not a matter of whether or not you’re going to get out of it. It’s a matter of how much bleeding there’s going to be and how quickly you can stop it.”

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Here’s the takeaway for small-businesses: Make sure you contact an attorney or the Department of Labor to ensure you’re properly classifying workers and following minimum wage and overtime laws so you don’t have to fight the feds or fork over thousands.

“In the end, we said let’s just go back to making great beer and making great food and move on, so that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Hall.

Here’s more from the U.S. Department of Labor news release:

“The Department offers numerous resources to ensure employers have the tools they need to understand their responsibilities and to comply with federal law, such as online videos and confidential calls to local WHD offices.

For more information about the FLSA and other laws enforced by the Wage and Hour Division, contact the toll-free helpline at 866-4US-WAGE (487-9243).

Employers that discover overtime or minimum wage violations may self-report and resolve those violations without litigation through the PAID program. Information is also available online.”

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