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Employment Law for Bartenders, Waiters and Waitresses

Bartenders, waiters and waitresses, or “Liquor Servers” as they are referred to in the Employment Standards Act (“ESA”), are given special treatment under the law and by the Ontario Courts. While many of the ESA’s provisions apply equally to all types of employees, there are some important distinctions for liquor servers that hospitality employees and employers should know. This article is meant to highlight some of those important differences.

Minimum Wage

As of January 1, 2018, minimum wage for most workers in Ontario was increased to $14.00 per hour. However, the ESA permits lower minimum wage rates for certain designated groups of workers who receive tips as a significant portion of their income. Liquor servers fall into this category. Since January of 2018, the minimum wage rate for liquor servers is $12.20 per hour.

While the terms “Liquor Server” or “Bartender” are not specifically defined in the ESA, the relevant section on minimum wage provides helpful insight into whether an employee’s minimum wage rate can legally be lowered to $12.20 per hour. The ESA states as follows:

Determination of Minimum Wage
23.1 (1) The minimum wage is the following:
1. On or after January 1, 2018, but before October 1, 2020, the amount set out below for the following classes of employees:
ii. For employees who, as a regular part of their employment, serve liquor directly to customers, guests, members or patrons in premises for which a licence or permit has been issued under the Liquor Licence Act and who regularly receive tips or other gratuities from their work, $12.20 per hour. [emphasis added]

Minimum Wage After October 2020

As suggested in the above section, after October of 2020, the minimum wage rate for liquor servers will increase in accordance with a formula based on the Consumer Price Index. This formula is as follows:

Previous Wage × (Index A/Index B) = Adjusted Wage

In which:

“Previous wage” is the minimum wage rate that applied immediately before October 1st of the year;

“Index A” is the Consumer Price Index for the previous calendar year;

“Index B” is the Consumer Price Index for the calendar year immediately preceding the calendar year mentioned in the description of “Index A;” and

“Adjusted wage” is the resulting new minimum wage rate.

Termination, Reasonable Notice, and Wages

Like all employees in Ontario, liquor servers are entitled to a certain amount of notice, or pay in lieu of notice, when their employment is terminated.

That being said, for liquor servers, more often than not a significant portion of their income comes in the form of tips. Therefore, the biggest question I get as a Toronto employment lawyer, from both employees and employers, is whether tips should be included as wages for the purpose of pay in lieu of reasonable notice. The answer to that questions depends significantly on whether the bartender or liquor server has a valid employment contract that limits notice only to those minimums under the ESA.

Under the ESA, Wages Do Not Include Tips

Under the ESA, generally when an employer terminates an employee who has been continuously employed for at least 3 months, the employer must provide the employee with notice, or pay in lieu of notice. This pay in lieu of notice is often referred to as “termination pay.” The amount of written notice required by the ESA is as follows:

Employment Period Notice Length
3 months – less than 1 year 1 Week
1 year – less than 3 years 2 Weeks
3 years – less than 4 years 3 Weeks
4 years – less than 5 years 4 Weeks
5 years – less than 6 years 5 Weeks
6 years – less than 7 years 6 Weeks
7 years – less than 8 years 7 Weeks
8 years or more 8 Weeks

If an employee, by an enforceable employment contract, is only entitled to the minimums under the ESA, then that worker may NOT be owed tips. Wages under the ESA are defined as:

“Wages” means:
(a) monetary remuneration payable by an employer to an employee under the terms of an employment contract, oral or written, express or implied,
(b) any payment required to be made by an employer to an employee under this Act, and
(c) any allowances for room or board under an employment contract or prescribed allowances,
but does not include,
(d) tips or other gratuities,
(e) any sums paid as gifts or bonuses that are dependent on the discretion of the employer and that are not related to hours, production or efficiency,
(f) expenses and travelling allowances, or
(g) subject to subsections 60 (3) or 62 (2), employer contributions to a benefit plan and payments to which an employee is entitled from a benefit plan. [emphasis added]

Without an Enforceable Termination Clause, Tips Are Owed as Part of Termination Pay

Without an enforceable clause in an employment contract which limits reasonable notice to only the ESA minimums, the Ontario Courts ignore the strict wording of the ESA and require employers to pay tips as part of wrongful termination pay.

We can see an example of this in the case of Giacomo Violo v. Delphi Communications, Incorporated. Violo had worked as a waiter and bartender for a small restaurant in Ontario for 29 years. At the time of his termination, he was 51 years old. The parties did not have an employment contract, and the restaurant contended that Violo had been legally terminated due to excessive tardiness, alcohol abuse, and discourteous behaviour. After examining the evidence, including work records from the defendant and testimony from current employees, the Court determined that “there was no cause for the plaintiff’s dismissal.” The Court then turned to the issue of determining the reasonable notice period Violo was due. After examining numerous factors, including Violo’s age and the availability of similar jobs at the time he was terminated, the Court determined Violo was entitled to a reasonable notice period of 15 months. The Court then addressed the issue of damages, noting that tips would be factored in as such wages constituted a significant portion of his overall income: “… in 2010 he claimed $9,025 in tip income, almost as much as his income from wages.” In total, Violo was awarded $45,250, representative of his base salary and tips over the course of the 15 month notice period.

Final Thoughts

For employers, it is important to have a valid written employment contract with all bartenders, waiters, and waitresses. While the amount of notice cannot be below the minimum amount required by the ESA, employers can fashion contracts which provide for less notice than the employee would otherwise be entitled to at common law. When it comes to employees who receive customary tips, this can mean a substantial difference in the amount of termination pay. If you need assistance drafting employment contracts, we strongly recommend that you speak to an experienced employment attorney for guidance and assistance.

For terminated employees who received tips as a significant portion of their overall income, it is crucial to remember that they likely have rights under the common law that are far greater than the rights afforded to them under the ESA. It may be best for liquor servers and waitresses to sue their former employer in court for “wrongful dismissal,” seeking additional damages which would include tips. If you have been recently terminated from a position where you received tips as part of your income, we suggest that you speak to an employment attorney to help you determine the best course of action for your situation.


Contact Justin W. Anisman

Contact Justin W. Anisman, the author of this blog, about any employment law related questions or issues you may be facing. Call 416-304-7005 or email him at janisman@btlegal.ca.

Justin W. Anisman is an Employment Lawyer at the Toronto law firm Brauti Thorning LLP. Justin advises both companies and individuals in all aspects of employment law including wrongful dismissal, human rights and discrimination.


The publications made on this website are provided and intended for general introductory information purposes only. They do not constitute legal or other professional advice, or an opinion of any kind. Speak to a professional before making decisions about your own particular circumstances.

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