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February 10, 2007

Tips-only supermarket baggers fight for hourly wage

Shocking as it may sound, some grocery baggers in New York City work entirely for tips. Now, grocery baggers around the city are demanding a wage for their work:

They are a fixture across New York City, giving shoppers a welcoming smile and a helping hand as they assist cashiers in packing everything from apples to zucchinis.

In many supermarkets, managers treat these baggers as volunteers, not paying them wages and making them rely on tips.

But now, in a new front in the wage-and-hour wars, many baggers are speaking up, insisting that they are employees and should be paid like other supermarket workers. Call it the baggers’ rebellion — a rebellion that involves lawsuits, street protests and a boycott. [NYT]

Tips-only bagging is illegal in New York and the state attorney general's office has been fighting the practice for years. The NYT article mentions several cases in which workers have won hourly wages by complaining to the state AG's office. Now union organizers are moving in to help the baggers fight for even more gains:

Organizers from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union are visiting dozens of supermarkets to meet with unpaid baggers, to pressure managers to pay them properly and to help rally grocery workers to unionize.

“It’s a big problem, and it seems to be concentrated in the ethnic supermarkets,” said Jeff Eichler, the union’s organizing director. “Unfortunately, it’s become an accepted practice in some neighborhoods, partly because enforcement has been minimal.” [NYT]

One of Eliot Spitzer's major achievements as Attorney General was to win over $3 million in back pay for Gristedes grocery delivery workers who had previously received only tips.

Good for the New York Times "Region" section and labor reporter Steven Greenhouse for covering this important story.


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If you wanted an illustration of how different things are in the USA and France then this post by Majikthise is a good example of something that flat out could not happen in continental Europe. [Read More]


I actually worked for a corner deli in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, delivering groceries only for tips. I only thought I was being exploited because the cheap bum who owned the place wanted me to do work in the store between deliveries in exchange for a salary of zero.

I was only in the 8th grade, so it was all gravy to me.

I can't imagine that someone whose job is to -bag- groceries would get zero salary. Delivery guys, esp in Manhattan can actually do well on tips alone, but I'd think very few customers would even consider tipping someone bagging groceries. This story is a bit of an eye opener.

If the baggers only work for tips, are they really employees?

I would want to know,

(1) Do their employers withhold taxes from their tips?

(2) Do baggers report their tips to the IRS at all, or are they essentially getting tax-free income?

(3) Do baggers have to show up at work by a certain time and stay until a certain time, or can they come and go as they please?

(4) Can they just show up or not show up on any given day, or are they obligated to be there in accordance with a regular schedule?

(5) Are baggers actually hired? Do they have any official employment contract? Can they be fired?

I would say that before someone can demand wages for a job, they have to actually have a job. No one is forcing them to show up and bag groceries.

I have never ever seen anyone tip a supermarket bagger, and I've lived in a bunch of cities. Is this a NYC thing? They wear store uniforms and nametags, too.

This came about because originally, baggers were simply kids who hung out at the grocery store, hoping to pick up some spare change by offering to help customers with their purchases. For that matter, that's where waiters originally came from.

It sounds, though, as though some stores have yet to enter the 21st Century. Or even the 20th, really.

Well, I've only seen this in NYC, but that's the only North American city I've lived in. I assumed the baggers were just some employees' kids who roamed around expecting a few cents in tip.

I'm surprised the UFCW isn't all over this, I was a bagboy for several years in the Chicago area and we were covered under the same union contract as the rest of the store employees.

I think over the course of three summers and winters I made approximately $20 in tips (either for bagging or walking the carts out to the cars and loading cars). It's not exactly a way to make a lot of money.

In NYC a lot of the baggers end up delivering the groceries as well, that is where the tip money is to be made, but again you're not going to be buying an Escalade with all of that tax-free money rolling in. Where I live in Brooklyn the accepted tip seems to be a buck per bag. It takes about ten minutes to make a delivery, so the best case scenario is to make about $30 in tips (an optimal six deliveries, 4-5 bags per delivery). That's if there's six deliveries to be made and everyone tips at least a buck. I don't think the rate is anywhere close to that.

Happy Valentine’s Day


“It’s a big problem, and it seems to be concentrated in the ethnic supermarkets,” said Jeff Eichler, the union’s organizing director.

Any change we could get some empirical evidence that suggests whether this really is a "big problem" or not--like, how many people are involved? And how many of them are people working in stores owned by families or extended families, who would actually resent changes to the system. I'm quite willing to believe that Jeff Eichler is correct, and this genuinely is a big problem, but I'd prefer to see some real numbers.

There are three people bagging in the small supermarket I frequent--I'm pretty sure one is an hourly employee rewarded for years of low-wage labor with a job that doesn't require much exertion, one is an hourly employee who has other primary duties and helps out by bagging when there's a long line at the cashiers, and a third is the teenage son of the owner, making pocket money through tips and otherwise quite likely uncompensated. More vigorous enforcement of the law mighty mean the boy couldn't work there anymore, and I doubt the store would hire anybody else to do the work.

Oh, jeez, I'm supposed to be tipping these guys?

(I do tip the delivery guys.)

Unfortunately, I in a midst of a lawsuit between my parents (supermarket owners) and a lady who was a bagger and made deliveries. My parents are very good people and their ignorance and good hearts is what got them in this problem. First of all we had no idea that it was illegal to have people bag groceries without a wage...especially if we never hired the person. I mean this lady was very sweet, (according to my parents) spent alot of time hanging around the store and built up a clientele for deliveries parents if anything were happy to see that people, especially those without papers, were able to manage to get a buck here and there... and what was the payback for their not pushing her out of the store for her building a business in their business...she sues them!!! My parents have deep economic issues and now are faced with this ... they no longer have the business over a year now and must come with a way to pay this lady who claims she was an employee for 5 years when clearly she did what she wanted when she wanted!!!! How can this be?? Wouldn't that be the best job to work when I feel like it! I just think it is soooo sad how people are taking advantage of the system. Don't even let me start on those who take welfare when they shouldn't! I agree some need it but I tell you I know too many people living it up with their $200 a month rent... Ugh!! I am soo fustrated!

Even though this comment is over a year with the others, I feel that I should be allowed to make my points. I am a long-time bagger, working in a supermarket in Queens. I'm not going to tell you where. I have been a bagger and deliveryman at this particular store for an uncertain number of years. Some people say I've been there for twelve years, others say fifteen, my own personal recordskeeping puts my tenure at seventeen years this past Thanksgiving week, and a Meat spuervisor claims that I've been with this store twenty years...and not one day of it on the books.

Now to answer some of The Phanton's questions, in my own personal experience. I have a set schedule that I have given myself. I like to be present after eleven, because the library opens up at ten and I obtain internet access through the library system. If I was able to afford a computer of my own, I would arrive earlier. Secondly, I usually leave when the store closes down for the night, sometimes staying to help with the throwbacks or cleaning. Not so much anymore, because my mother has complained that I've been getting home and eating dinner too late at night.

With the exception of the odd Sunday morning that my mother and I go to the movies, I am most likely at the store every day, six to seven days a week, ten hours a day. I feel that I do not make enough to report my earnings to the IRS. While--as you say--my income may be tax-free, most of it goes to keeping a roof over our heads and fed (rent and food) and the one luxury that we have...cable.

Now I would like to explain something that will alarm some of you, in the form of an equation. Suppose ten customers come down the checkout like, each with up to a full cart of groceries. The bagger does each one in turn, and of those ten, only six tip him for his services. You would think that the bagger has just earned six dollars, right? Nothing can be further from the truth. The bagger--you might be surprised to discover--is completely and utterly at the mercy of the customers coming down the cashier line. The customer can tip anything that he or she wishes at any time. It is not a question of what the tip will be; it is often a question of whether the person will tip at all.

This is the reality that I face every day. Now I face a new one; the store where I'm working--after years of service to the community--is getting ready to close and change over to another establishment sometime in the New Year. I have no idea what I'm going to do; the economy is in the tank and I have no skills beyond bagging and delivering groceries. I try not to think about it too often; the ulcer in my stomach is big enough.

Whenever I shop in a place that accepts tips, I ALWAYS tip as much as I keep what I like to call the "Tip Circle" going. I guess you can say I like to "tip it forward", ha ha.

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