Two words guaranteed to make sports fans sick to their stomach: service charge.
You know, that little extra fee that teams or ticket brokers tack on to your purchase to skew the final cost higher, sometimes much higher than you expected. Every industry exists to make a profit, but the "service charge," by its very existence, is all too often a naked profit grab, a way of squeezing a few more bucks out of customers you've already hooked. Fans' passion is teams' business, and its teams' business to make money off fans' passion.
Even worse than a service charge, though, is a service charge that's not going to the place its payers expect. Consider, for instance, the service charges fans paid in Yankee Stadium's elite Field Level section for food and beverage service from 2009 to 2011. While sitting in seats that cost between $100 and $300 a pop, fans could order food off a menu and have it delivered to them without ever getting up, albeit for an extra 20-percent "service charge" that was noted on said menu.
That's a mandatory tip going to the server, right?
Not so, according to 32 Yankee Stadium servers. They've banded together to seek payment from the Yankees for their justly earned gratuities – between $500,000 and $1 million worth over the course of three seasons.
The servers claim that the 20-percent service charge that Yankee Stadium patrons paid went straight into the pockets of the Yankees and Legends Hospitality LLC, a corporation created to run the stadium's concessions. Legends Hospitality was formed by the Yankees, the Dallas Cowboys and Goldman Sachs, meaning pretty much everyone in America has a visceral dislike of at least one of its prongs. (Legends Hospitality did not return a Yahoo! Sports inquiry seeking comment.)
Even so, before we go full-on Occupy Yankee Stadium, let's remember: This particular service charge did have its purpose. Patrons were indeed paying for a "service," and if the actual service providers didn't have a deal that stipulated they received that "charge," well, is that the Yankees' fault? Or responsibility?
Yes, says the lawsuit, which charges that state law specifically speaks to this question. The waiters note that from 2009 to 2011, the "service charge" was added to customers' bills as a mandatory fee, and a line on the menu noted that "additional gratuity is at your discretion." (The service charge was discontinued after the 2011 season.)
The lawsuit submits that customers assumed that the charge was a tip for the wait staff, and that the team owes the waiters between $500,000 and $1 million in unpaid gratuities. The suit seeks payment of those gratuities, plus liquidated damages and attorney's fees.
The complaint, the server's attorney Brian Schaffer said, is "based on what the menu said and what the customer believes. It's a New York State law. Does it happen a lot? Yes, in bars, nightclubs and now stadiums." Schaffer was not aware of any other labor-related complaints at the new Yankee Stadium that had reached a courtroom.
The waiters, dubbed "in-seat service" personnel, receive a flat rate of $35 per game plus 4- to 6-percent commission on all their sales. Schaffer said that at the high end, a waiter could receive $20,000 for a full season in shift payment plus commission.
For purposes of comparison, a waiter in New York City will either earn $7.25 per hour (minimum wage) or $5.00 per hour with a "tip credit" (generally 12 percent of revenues, for tax purposes) plus tips, according to the New York State waiter-watchdog website WaiterPay.com.
(Of note: The retention of the "service charge" is by no means unique to Yankee Stadium; WaiterPay lists it as No. 4 on its "Top Ten Violations" committed by restaurants against their employees.)
The lawsuit was filed on Friday in the Bronx. The Yankees have not yet responded to the complaint.
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