Do Restaurants Make Staff Pay For Food Mistakes?

Whether you're a customer who had to return a mistaken food order to the kitchen or a waitstaff member who wants to know what to expect, you may wonder if restaurant managers and owners charge servers for food mistakes. There are lots of complicating factors that don't make this issue clear-cut, and it's important to note that "can," "do," and "should" are three very different things. Some employers do charge staff and can do so legally in many areas. Laws around this vary from city to city and state to state, and it can be illegal in some cases, but that doesn't necessarily mean all employers adhere to these rules. 

One of the biggest complicating factors in the U.S. is that the minimum wage can vary greatly, especially for tipped workers. The federally mandated minimum wage for all workers is $7.25, but employers in many areas can pay a much lower hourly wage of just $2.13, so long as their tipped wages are equal to $7.25 or more per hour. However, some cities have voted for higher minimum wages, even for tipped workers. In New York City, the minimum wage is $10.65 for tipped restaurant workers as of 2024, but their tips must be greater than or equal to $16 an hour. Otherwise, employers must pay the difference. How does this affect chargebacks? Chargebacks are prohibited if they drop the employee's hourly earnings below the area's minimum wage requirement for tipped workers.

Restaurant employees should be aware of local laws

Certain areas have criteria employers must meet to legally garnish an employee's wages for a food service mistake. For example, New York State law prohibits employers from charging employees for "spoilage and breakage" among other things. If an employee were to add a meal to a tab and then cancel the order from the bill to eat it themselves, an employer could legally charge the server. Examples of mistakes employees can't be charged for include tripping and breaking a platter of food and offering too many paper napkins that go unused because these fail to show willful intent or liability. However, just because there are legal regulations, that doesn't mean all employers follow them. Therefore, it pays to be savvy and up-to-date on local laws and learn which restaurants servers avoid working at. When in doubt, look up your state or city's regulations. 

If you are a server, ask your employer for a list of their written policies. Many of these will have clauses specifying which scenarios will result in a chargeback (if any), and you'll have the opportunity to cross-check them against local laws.