Across the country, waitstaff have cried foul over tip pools, claiming their employers are unfairly divvying out their hard-earned tips. A group of Starbucks baristas in New York tried to make that case, but on Wednesday, in a potential blow for many in New York's army of food service workers, the state's highest court sided with the coffee chain.
The baristas argued that their shift supervisors, as managers, should keep their fingers out of the tip jar. But the New York Court of Appeals disagreed, issuing guidelines that the work of shift supervisors was similar enough to the work of servers to qualify them for a share of the tips, even if they had some supervisory authority. The case has been knocked back to the Second Circuit for the final ruling.
Despite consistently being among Fortune's Best Companies To Work For, Starbucks pays baristas an average of $8.80 an hour, and shift supervisors earn about $11 an hour, according to Glassdoor.com. State laws usually ban managers from sharing in tips, but Starbucks has been hit with multiple lawsuits because of the murkiness of its shift supervisor position. On the one hand, shift supervisors are part-time, hourly employees, who serve customers and have no hiring or firing authority. On the other hand, they oversee and instruct baristas. They straddle two worlds, and the law has a tough time with straddlers.
Shannon Liss-Riordan, the attorney who represented the baristas, believes that Starbucks is exploiting this ambiguity in order to offset supervisors' wages with tips.
"It's a fight about who will pay part of the supervisors' wages," says Liss-Riordan. "Will it be Starbucks, which has a lot of money? Or will it be baristas, the lowest-level employee, where every penny of their tips is an important part of their wages?"
After Liss-Riordan won a similar case in Massachusetts last year, disqualifying shift supervisors' from tips, Starbucks increased their starting wage from $11 to $13.89 an hour, according to a labor group, The Industrial Workers of the World Starbucks.
A San Diego judge sided with the baristas in a similar suit in 2008, ordering Starbucks to pay back more than $100 million in tips to coffee servers. But the following year, Starbucks won on appeal, with the court concluding that the supervisors "essentially perform the same job as baristas."
A group of Starbucks assistant managers in New York also sued, wanting in on the tips. The New York court seemed unconvinced on that point, ultimately stating that a person should be disqualified from tips if they have "meaningful or significant authority over subordinates."
For tens of thousands of restaurant workers across the state, that's still a venti-size serving of vague.
Below see the slideshow, "The Most Underpaid Jobs In America."
The Most Underpaid Jobs in the U.S.
Starbucks Baristas Lose Battle To Keep Tips
Average Salary: $23,900 No. of Openings: 195,000 Job Satisfaction: HIGH
Those who work in security frequently praise the occupation's flexible hours (lots of night and 12-hour shifts result in more days off) and recommend it for people who don't mind working alone. Still, it's a job that can be particularly stressful to the psyche as well as the body. Security guards must remain alert to protect against and prevent fire hazards, larceny, vandalism, and other emergency situations and illegal activity. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that security guards experience more on-the-job injury than the national average for all professions; gaming surveillance officers specifically have one of the highest injury rates. Too bad the pay is so paltry for those making security their full-time gig. In 2011, the average median salary for a security guard was just $23,900.
Average Salary: $28,470 No. of Openings: 71,400 Job Satisfaction: HIGH
A sports coach trains either amateur or professional athletes for competition. But he or she also serves as an adviser, parent, teacher, and confidante for his or her team. The most-renowned in the profession -- the Bela Karolyis, the John Maddens, and the Pat Rileys -- have earned impressive salaries that came with adulation as well as endorsement deals. But most of the 242,900 professionals working in the field currently aren't coaching on that level, nor are they earning that type of pay. And the adulation they most mention to Glassdoor comes from the impressionable young people they coach on the secondary and collegiate level.
Average Salary: $29,100 No. of Openings: 162,900 Job Satisfaction: MEDIUM
The approximately 530,000 medical assistants employed in doctors' offices and larger medical organizations must do a mix of traditional office operations work and hands-on medical tasks. They take patient histories, assist in patient examinations, change wound dressings, and help with sterilizing equipment. Often, they're the first and last people a patient sees when visiting a doctor's office, so medical assistants play a substantial part in the overall patient-care experience. In recent years, a medical assistant's people skills and practical skills have been complemented by technological skills, since most patient records are now digitized. The multifaceted nature of responsibilities hasn't resulted in substantially higher pay, however. In 2011, the BLS reported a median salary for medical assistants that's $12,573 less than the national average.
Average Salary: $31,030 No. of Openings: 124,700 Job Satisfaction: HIGH
"There is a lot of satisfaction in helping people," writes one assistant department head to Glassdoor about working at Minnesota's Life Time Fitness club. Another recreation and fitness professional with Urban Active Fitness in Lexington, Ken., appreciates "The people you'll meet and relationships you'll start." So it's no surprise that as a whole, recreation and fitness occupations—aerobics instructors, camp counselors, and personal trainers—receive a boost on our Best Jobs list for their reported personal perks. The chance to be physically active and forgo a traditional 9-to-5 schedule also help boost these occupations' curb appeal. But fitness trainers earned an average $31,030 in 2011, according to the BLS. That's more than $10,000 less than the national average median wage.
Average Salary: $31,870 No. of Openings: 118,500 Job Satisfaction: HIGH
Today's administrative assistants have evolved beyond juggling phone messages and transcribing meeting minutes. They must now be thoroughly organized, have excellent writing and editing skills, and display a knack for multitasking. Often, admin professionals fulfill the roles of project managers, secret keepers, daily planners, customer service reps, and tech support. And despite wearing so many hats around the office, the more than 2 million employed administrative assistants were earning a salary that's well below the national average -- $30,830 in 2010. In 2011, they earned about $31,870. Corporate culture and outstanding office benefits -- but not compensation -- were the key contributors to this occupation securing such lofty scores for job satisfaction.
Average Salary: $39,070 No. of Openings: 45,000 Job Satisfaction: HIGH
The mercurial economy hasn't made a real estate agent's profession an easy one. Still, the BLS predicts approximately 45,000 openings in this occupation between now and 2020, thanks to population growth. Agents have to stay abreast to the local zoning and tax laws of various communities, plus keep a pulse on the atmosphere in communities where they might do business. Keeping tabs on market conditions is another crucial element of their occupation. This is also a job that requires copious paperwork and patience, but it's not a job that comes with copious spending change. Though the profession's highest-paid earned around $92,000 in 2011, a real estate agent's average salary was less than $40,000 that year. Some tell Glassdoor that they find reward in helping people find homes. For others, they appreciate the chance to make their own flexible schedule.
Average Salary: $40,680 No. of Openings: 58,200 Job Satisfaction: HIGH
The stakes are higher when a social worker has a bad day. The average, coddled office employee might become discouraged when the copier jams or the instant coffee machine goes on the fritz. But for a children, family and school social worker, a "bad day" could entail reporting suspected child abuse, having a proposed adoption fall through, or witnessing a parent losing custody of their children. Despite the high stress, social workers report to Glassdoor that they like working with people, and get a thrill out of positively impacting the lives of others. Their tender hearts don't translate to loads of legal tender, though. The BLS reports that a social worker's median salary was $40,680 in 2011, just shy of the national average wage.