On Saturday, September 18th, Square—the publicly traded credit card payment processor used by cafes across the United States—experienced a glitch the removed the automatic tipping screen from their check-out display. This made is difficult, if not impossible in many cases, for customers to leave a tip, and it cost baristas and restaurant workers untold thousands in lost wages.
As reported by the Washington Post, the error occurred in the early hours on Saturday and was due to an automatic software update. The outages, according to Down Detector, started being reported around noon EST, peaking between 2:00pm and 4:00pm before tapering off an hour later. The issue was confirmed by Square just before 1:00pm and was resolved just after 5:00pm.
In the meantime, though, cafe and restaurant workers were unable to receive tips, a revenue source that comprises a significant portion of their total wages. The rest of Square’s functionality remained intact, meaning customers could still make purchases. This posed additional issues for establishments where workers are required to take part in a tip share that is based off their daily sales totals, a fairly common practice in restaurants (and some cafes), meaning that servers could have not only lost out on money but could actually owe.
“For about 3 hours on Saturday, Sept. 18th, our systems experienced an issue that prevented some sellers from being able to sign into their accounts or accept tips,” Square spokesman Marcus Torrey said in an email. “We understand how important it is to never miss a sale and how critical tip collection can be for our sellers’ teams.”
He added that they apologize and will share more details on how to prevent similar incidents in the future.
This has left many cafe workers uncertain on how to recuperate the money lost during the outage. On Twitter, Erica Escalante, owner of Café Reina in Portland, has requested the company refund the day’s processing fees—which Square recently modified the pay structure for, much to the chagrin of many cafes—so that she can pay her staff. Andrew Sinclair, owner of MadLab Coffee in Los Angeles, suggested direct reimbursement from Square to affected workers.
Perhaps most damning, some are calling the tipping glitch a form of wage theft, a criminally prosecutable crime. In many states, tips are allowed to be considered as wages; in my home state of Texas, restaurants are allowed to pay servers $2.13/hour—which is the federal minimum cash wage—because tips are meant to comprise the bulk majority of their income. If tipping is not available, as the thinking goes, it amounts to keeping workers from earning money federally recognized as wages. It is unclear how, even in a civil suit, how remuneration would be assessed.
Square has yet to address requests for compensation.
While tipping is an outdated practice with a racist past, it is nonetheless the means by which many service workers make a bulk of their wages. With the trend toward cashless, touchless payments, credit card providers like Square are playing an increasingly significant role in workers ability to earn a living. And when they go down, the most vulnerable members of the transaction are left holding the bag.