With reporting by Sarah Schweppe.
Bleu Bistro Grotto, a neighborhood restaurant on Capitol Hill, has started charging customers a 1.9 percent surcharge on every bill, ostensibly to offset the cost of Seattle's paid sick leave law, which went into effect last year.
The new law requires companies with more than five employees to give their workers time off—between five and nine days a year, depending on the size of the company—when they're sick, to care for sick family members, or to deal with issues related to domestic violence. Workers start accruing leave after they've been at a company for 240 days, at the rate of one hour for every 40 hours worked.
A tipster provided us with her receipt, which includes a $1.54 "City Ord. S.S.L. Charge"—a reference to "safe and sick leave."
PubliCola's tipster filed a complaint with the state attorney general, charging that by listing the surcharge along with state sales tax and other taxes, Bleu Bistro Grotto is falsely representing the surcharge as a tax levied by the city. The complaint reads, in part:
Unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of commerce in Washington are illegal. Bleu Bistro Grotto has a practice of providing deceptive information misleading customers and staff to believe that the City of Seattle’s Sick and Safe Leave Ordinance is a 1.9% Tax that goes to the city. It is not and it does not. While the owner is free to raise his prices as he sees fit, it is deceptive to after the fact add a 1.9% Sick and Safe Leave charge onto each purchase within the receipt. I would like this practice to stop.
Bleu Bistro owner Ross McCartney says that if he hadn't passed the cost of paid sick leave on to customers as a fee, he would have had to raise his prices. (McCartney estimates that paying his employees sick leave will cost him about $8,000 a year.) At least this way, he says, he's being transparent.
“The public would be paying it anyway," McCartney says. "It’s fair to put on the receipt so people can look at it in a positive way.”
However, restaurants actually do have another option: They can ask employees who are sick to swap shifts with other workers. At the request of the restaurant industry, the sick leave law allows workers to trade their shifts in lieu of sick leave. If a waiter trades off a four-hour shift to another waiter, for example, she would forfeit four hours of sick leave.
Earlier this year, Cherry Street Coffee began charging customers a "sick leave surcharge" of 1.5 percent at its eight Seattle locations and posted signs explaining that the charge was meant "to help offset the cost of the city of Seattle's sick leave policy." That lasted exactly three days: After a barrage of negative media attention and customer complaints, the surcharge, and the signs, went away.