'Deeply regretful' Susur Lee to reimburse workers after illegally docking tips at his eateries

World-renowned chef and reality TV star Susur Lee has told his employees he has changed a system at his restaurants that illegally forced them to hand over a portion of their tips to pay for common mistakes, and he has promised to reimburse staff after workers at his three eateries blasted the policy.

Workers, including former staff, at 3 Toronto eateries to be returned money docked since June 2016

Chef Susur Lee, who owns several Toronto restaurants, has gotten rid of a system that docked workers' tips for mistakes and will reimburse staff for money taken since June 2016. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

World-renowned chef and reality TV star Susur Lee has told his employees he has changed a system at his restaurants that illegally forced them to hand over a portion of their tips to pay for common mistakes, and he has promised to reimburse staff after workers at his eateries blasted the policy.

As CBC Toronto reported last week, those mistakes included spilling drinks, sending the wrong drink to a table and punching in an incorrect order with the kitchen, according to staff at King Street's Lee and Fring's, and the recently closed Bent restaurant on Dundas Street West. Workers would be forced to hand over a portion of their tips, something management referred to as "IOUs."

"The IOU policy has been eliminated across all of our restaurants," Lee and his sons, Kai and Levi, wrote in a letter placed in employees' tip envelopes last pay period. "We want to assure you we are ready and willing to rectify this mistake.

CBC News obtained a copy of a letter notifying employees that Susur Lee Restaurants has dissolved its IOU system and will reimburse 'every staff member.' (CBC)

While Lee wouldn't disclose when the policy ended, a current employee said the IOUs — a dollar deficit typically written in ink on the tip envelopes — stopped two weeks ago after some employees took to social media to air their complaints.

Ontario changed rules in 2016

This assurance, however, comes over a year after the Ministry of Labour changed its rules on deductions from workers' tips.

"Employers can't withhold, make deductions from, or make their employees return their tips and other gratuities," the ministry's website reads. 

"Employers can't take tips and other gratuities to cover things like: spilled food or beverages, broken supplies (e.g. dishes and glassware) losses or damages (e.g. from theft or customers who don't pay their bill)." 

Lee has told staff his company will reimburse them for gratuities they've lost since 2016. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Lee also apologized for leaving the IOU policy in place after the labour laws were changed in June 2016, noting he hadn't been notified of the new legislation. 

"We want to reiterate how deeply regretful we are," the letter reads.

"We understand that there is no justification we can offer for this oversight on our part."

Eateries to reimburse staff for IOUs

In order to rectify the issue, Lee says, "every staff member [will be] fully reimbursed for the amount owed to them."

Kelsea Knowles, executive assistant and public relations co-ordinator for Susur Lee Restaurant Group, told CBC Toronto Monday they are issuing refunds and reaching out to former staff.

According to a current employee, they have been instructed to give their IOU receipts to management.

Knowles wouldn't disclose when staff will receive the compensation, but added in an email statement the company is "in the process of hiring an HR consultant to make sure all is done correctly." 

'It was pretty devastating'

But some who who had to pay IOUs worth more than $100 out of weekly tips worth in excess of $500, say it has cost them much-needed cash. 

An example of an IOU of $101.70 taken out of former Fring's bartender Dylan Turner's tips for the week. (Submitted by Dylan Turner)

Dylan Turner, who worked as a bartender at Fring's for six months before quitting last July, says there was one IOU he just couldn't afford.

"It was pretty devastating," he explained. 

"I'll never forget it. I poured a shot of 1942 Don Julio for this guy."

It was a busy Friday and Turner accidentally poured water into the man's shot. The customer who was drinking it neat, asked for another.

That second pour could have cost Turner $30 out of his tips that week, but he said, "I fought really hard."

His manager took mercy on him and looked the other way. "It was the only time I was let off the hook for an IOU."

Dylan Turner and Taylor Davis, who were bartenders at Fring's last year, both say the IOU system starved them of tips they rightfully earned. (Ivan Arsovski/CBC)

Taylor Davis, another former bartender at Fring's, who quit in August 2016, says the IOUs created a culture of "intimidation and fear."

"They're terrified of making any mistakes," said Davis, speaking of his former colleagues at the popular King Street West restaurant. 

He said most of his IOUs were for entering the wrong drink order into the computer system and spillage.

"On average there would be two to three [IOUs] in my tip-out every week." They added up to an average $50 a week, said Davis.

With files from Ali Chiasson