Wahaca backtracks on charging waiters over unpaid bills

Wahaca's South Bank branch
Wahaca's South Bank branch.
Photo: PA Images

Mexican-style street food chain Wahaca has altered its policy on making serving staff pay part of the bills of customers who leave its outlets without paying, following a social media backlash.

On Saturday (15 June) a waiter at the chain’s Kentish Town, north London, branch was asked by a manager to pay £3 of a £40 unpaid bill – a request made at “the manager’s discretion”, according to Wahaca. The chain’s policy had been that individual serving staff could be held accountable for part of the unpaid bill where they had allowed a customer to leave knowing they had not paid.

The incident on Saturday was witnessed by Sarah Howard, a former leader of Camden Council, who after speaking to the waiter concerned, tweeted that “Ppl next to us left without paying and their server is made to foot the bill from his wages. Apparently company policy. Utterly shameful employment practice.”

Wahaca yesterday sought to clarify its walk-out policy to “ensure that waiters will not have to pay in the unfortunate times when this occurs”. The restaurant thanked Howard and established a revised procedure: “In situations of a walk out, whilst the waiter is responsible for the table they will not have to pay any element of the bill. However if the manager suspects that the waiter was complicit in the walk out then there should be a full investigation which will be taken to the operations manager to decide the appropriate action.”

The Unite union condemned the original Wahaca policy. A spokesperson stated: “Hospitality staff are already paid a low wage, but to then be expected to pay for the dishonesty of customers is quite shocking.”

According to the union, “staff are often forced to hand over their hard earned tips to cover the costs of all kinds of things, from customers doing a runner without paying, to till shortages and breakages”.

Firms making such deductions risked breaking the law the union stated: “Making minimum waged staff hand over their hard earned tips to cover the cost of customers doing a runner without paying is outrageous enough. But employers should be aware that deducting cash from a waiter’s wages could be illegal if it takes workers below the minimum wage. It’s wage theft.”

According to the Guardian, Wahaca was accused of skimming staff tips in 2015 with staff saying they had to pay a 3.3% levy on card sales. The chain responded that tip charges were pooled and redistributed to bar and back of house workers. “The person who cleans the dishes is as important as the general manager and the waiters and waitresses,” said founder Thomasina Miers.

The incident on Saturday created a Twitter storm. One tweet read With this logic Thomasina all shop staff should have their wages docked to ‘partially’ cover shop-lifted goods. Sound fair?

Miers responded “You’re right, but this was never our policy. Only when a waiter knowingly lets someone walk out without leaving does it constitute gross negligence which this clearly wasn’t.”

Hayward later congratulated Twitter users for helping get the chain to alter its policy.

Patrick Glencross, a lawyer at Cripps Pemberton Greenish, said that any deductions from an employee’s pay might be made under the terms of their contract or by prior written agreement.

“The employer would also need to show that the event justifying a deduction took place, and in this situation that the employee was negligent and that his negligence enabled the customers to leave without paying,” he said.

“Furthermore, there are extra provisions protecting retail workers. Employers cannot deduct more than 10% of employee wages on the basis of cash shortages or stock deficiencies.”

There is also a risk that deductions could mean staff are being paid below the national minimum wage, he added. “It is particularly difficult for a company to justify a deduction based on an event for which the employee bore no direct responsibility. Wahaca would need to show some connection between the employee’s conduct and the customers leaving without payment. If they are already paying staff at or close to minimum wage, an unjustified deduction from wages could result in the employee being paid below the minimum wage.”

Wahaca has 27 branches in the UK and has won awards for food, design and sustainability. In 2016 it was suspected to be the source of novovirus outbreak that affected about 1,000 people and had to temporarily close nine outlets.

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