Could a ruling against Starbucks help table game dealers get their tips back?

When I first saw the news that a Superior Court had ruled against Starbucks Corp., ordering the coffee giant to pay more than $100 million in back tips to baristas that had been given to shift supervisors at the chain’s California locations, I immediately thought of table game dealers and what kind of impact the decision could have for them. Apparently, I’m not the only one who has made that connection. Dealers with at least one Las Vegas gaming property are already hailing the decision.

If you’ve followed the controversy between management and dealers at the Wynn Las Vegas Resort & Casino, then you already know that Steve Wynn and the management of the property implemented a tip-sharing policy with dealers and table game supervisors such as pit managers. The rules, setting aside at least 15 percent of dealers’ tips for the supervisors, created a new precedent with regard to how dealers’ tokes are managed - one the dealers there claim is grossly unfair.

For 18 months, dealers at Wynn Las Vegas have been fighting the new rules: filing a lawsuit to overturn Wynn’s policy; petitioning for a state ballot initiative against the measure and to protect tips for traditional tip-earning casino workers; and voting to have labor representation from the Transport Workers Union. The dealers have argued that the policy violates Nevada laws and cite over 30 years’ worth of case- studies and legal precedents to back up their case. Wynn, though telling dealers the policy was a mistake prior to the union vote, has defended the policy of late. He and Wynn management argue that supervisors are entitled to a share of the tips as well, as many of their duties involve communication and dealings with customers as well (greetings, making sure drink orders are fulfilled, etc.).

But for dealers, who depend on tips for the majority of their salaries, the decision to tip-share has a huge impact, resulting in thousands of dollars in lost earnings per year. An average casino dealer in Las Vegas might make between $7 and $10 per hour, but with tips, they can make anywhere from $65,000 to $100,000 a year. Having to share 15 percent of that amount can be significant. And, make no mistake, other casino companies and properties are interested to see how this pans out as well, meaning that table game dealers across the United States could feel the pinch too. After all, Wynn does tend to set examples that the industry seems to mimic.

In a recent article in the Las Vegas Sun, Wynn dealers said they were elated with the California Starbucks decision, adding that it gave hope and perhaps some additional precedent fuel for their own tip battles. Yet, in Nevada’s more company- friendly courts, dealers could still face long odds.

As it stands now, Nevada Revised Statutes denote that “it is unlawful for any person to take all or part of any tips or gratuities bestowed upon his employees.”

For more than a year, the Sun article notes, attorneys for both sides have contested the definitions of “person” and “take.” Wynn supervisors, like Starbucks supervisors, don’t handle the same tasks as the people they are managing. But Wynn dealers no longer count or account for their own tips, contrary to common casino industry practices.

So what’s my take on this debate? I have largely remained on the sidelines, though I haven’t really seen why tip-sharing is seen as necessary on the casino floor. I understand tip-sharing for restaurants and other hospitality venues where a true team of employees, all earning similar base wages, are caring for the customer. I know this is a stance some operators won’t agree with, but think about the end consequences.

Unhappy dealers lead to unhappy players, and unhappy players lead to less business. You can’t force or mandate employee satisfaction. It just doesn’t work that way. My suggestion would be to leave dealer tips alone. Give supervisors other incentives like better pay and bonuses (and incentives to work toward becoming supervisors - many dealers today wouldn’t trade their gig for a management role). I’d think everyone would win under that scenario, including the customers and ultimately your bottom line.