Former bartender wins lawsuit against Surly Brewing Co.

Surly Brewing loses lawsuit over tip pooling.
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A guy who used to work at Surly Brewing Co. says the brewery made him share his tips unfairly. So he sued – and won.

The case was filed by James Russell Conlon, a former bartender at Surly. He is representing a class of about 100 former Surly bartenders and servers.

Court documents show Conlon filed the suit in February 2016, about two months after Surly fired him. He had been working at the brewery since November 2014.

The lawsuit is over Surly's tip pool policy, a practice where servers and bartenders put all their tips together at the end of the night then divide them up. 

Conlon says the tip pool violated the Minnesota Fair Labor Standards Act. Minnesota law forbids tipping pools that are mandated by employers, although the statute allows employees to set them up on their own.

In this case, the court found Surly's management required tip pooling and controlled how it operated – which is illegal. A judge ruled in Conlon's favor on July 12.

Now his case will go before a jury to determine how much Conlon and the other servers and bartenders will receive in damages.

Surly responds

The brewery maintains it didn't do anything illegal.

In a statement to GoMN, a spokeswoman said this:

"Surly generally does not comment on pending legal matters. Nevertheless, Surly believes that it has fully complied with all state and federal laws regarding the administrative distribution of tips received by employees under Minnesota’s tip-pooling statute. We note that there is no claim that Surly withheld any tips from its employees, and in fact, it has not. Surly is working with its legal counsel to resolve this matter quickly and in a manner that is fair to Surly’s employees."

Tip pooling explained

If you're not familiar with tip pooling, here's the gist: All of the servers and bartenders turn in whatever they made in tips for the night into one "pool." 

That money gets redistributed so that every employee makes the same dollar amount in tips per hour worked. A percentage of the pool may also go to non-tipped staff like bussers, barbacks, food runners, and hosts.

Certainly not every restaurant does this, but it's becoming more popular – especially at establishments that focus on team service. It's purpose is to make sure every employee has each other's back, and that all guests get great service.

Surly's tip pool

The court documents say Surly changed its tipping policy multiple times from the time it opened until now, with frequent disagreement over how a tip pool might be implemented.

In 2015 the bartenders were thinking about opting out – but management was concerned that without the bartenders' participation, the tip pool system would fall apart, the documents say.

On Dec. 1 of that year, Surly set up a meeting to discuss the tip pool. Conlon was fired the next day. Surly says he was axed for "aggressive behavior," but Conlon claimed wrongful termination.

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