Skipping out on bar, restaurant tabs hurts more than people realize, service workers say

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A January episode of Live PD in El Paso captured an issue that bars and restaurants wish people knew more about.

“I paid one tab he was supposed to pay the other tab. The guy in the dreads was supposed to pay the other tab.” the man told El Paso Police Officer Melendez in the video.

“So you kept drinking, thinking they were going to pay,” Melendez asked, as the man was being arrested.

It turns out when you least expect it, someone will walk out on their bill, said Sabrina Medina, a bartender at Beach Bar, 6920 Delta.

She was surprised the first time regular customers left her with an unpaid tab.

“It was a couple that usually come every week and they ring up about $100 tab and I’ve never seen them since. So that was an unfortunate moment, so kind of now I am always cautious of everything,” she said.

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A bartender at Beach Bar counts her drawer mid shift to make sure her count is right. Photo by Megan Rios, Borderzine.com

El Paso attorney Daniel Mahoney said theft of service at a restaurant or bar is considered larceny. The penalty may vary depending on the amount of the tab as well as the state in which it occurred.

In Texas, fines for a misdemeanor can range from $50 up to $1,500.

“If you have no record, or a limited one, then a period of probation would be the likely disposition. However, there is a good chance that you could resolve this matter by payment of restitution,” Mahoney said.

Theft of service at restaurants and bars happens more than most people may think. And that can hurt the business as well as the workers, said David Waddell, director of chapter development with the Texas Restaurant Association.

“Establishment gets stuck with the bill. Sometimes, it can come out of the servants tips, etc. However most restaurants budget for theft,” Waddell said.

According to the United States Department of Labor, it is illegal to take deductions for walk-outs, breakage, or cash register shortages that reduce the employee’s wages below the minimum wage. According to the fact sheet, when an employer claims an FLSA 3(m) tip credit, the tipped employee is considered to have been paid only the minimum wage for all non-overtime hours worked in a tipped occupation. The employer may not take out deductions for walk outs, cash register shortages, breakage, cost of uniforms, etc,. When doing so, any deduction would reduce the tipped employee’s wages below minimum wage.

Patrons leave a bar after paying Photo by Megan Rios, Borderzine.com

Veronica Garcia, owner of Beach Bar says people try to leave unpaid tabs about four or five times a week, which is why the bar is strict about getting ID cards from patrons.

“A lot of regulars get offended actually, when somebody asks for their card and their ID,” Garcia said. “It’s not our fault, they’re the ones who are walking out, you know?”

At the bar, Medina said the problem can be worse around income tax season where patrons pay with their refund cards. She always pre-authorizes the card before serving.

“People have these cards and it will only have a limited amount of money but there is nothing there. And they will usually try to fool you with that. So you have to keep an eye out,” Medina said.

Waddell said that if patrons see someone walking out without paying a tab they should alert the manager.

“Different states handle it differently. It’s been an issue for years,” Waddell said. “It ranges from a prank, to a message to the establishment for perceived slow or terrible service.”

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