Aug. 27, 2012 -- It costs money to speak a foreign language in Burlington, Vermont—especially, if you go out to eat.
Anne-Marie Humbert discovered this the hard way, after a gratuity fee was tacked onto her restaurant bill--three different times at different restaurants.
The last time it happened the France-born Humbert, her husband, Steve Hulsey, and her nephew were eating at Splash at the Boathouse, and speaking French.
At the end of the meal they glanced at the bill and wondered why it was so hefty. Then they realized that an 18 percent gratuity had been tacked on--common for parties of five or more, but generally not added to the checks of smaller groups.
"Three times in less than a year I thought, 'There's something going on here,'" Humbert, who lives in neighboring Williston, Vt., and has been in the states for 30 years, told ABC News. "It was not a mistake."
So she asked the server why the tip was added on--and was told it was because she had been speaking a foreign language. Burlington, which is less than 100 miles from Montreal, gets a large number of Canadian tourists over the summer. "They explained to us that they get pretty bad tips from people from Quebec and Europe, and that they had a policy to add gratuity to get what they needed," she recalled.
Barb Bardin, the owner of Splash at the Boathouse, would not comment when contacted by ABC News. But she told Seven Days, that her restaurant no official policy regarding mandatory tips. That said, he often tells her wait staff to decide what to do.
"Because the servers really have such a hard time with it, I just leave it up to them," Bardin told Seven Days, adding that she tells her staff, to "do what you feel is appropriate for you."
Splash is not the only Burlington eatery to automatically include gratuity on checks. Humbert had a similar experience at Asiana Noodle Shop, twice.
The first time she paid her bill and said nothing. The second time she asked the server what had happened and was told that it was an error, which was subsequently fixed.
Owner Sandy Kong told ABC News that she usually only adds on 18 percent to a group of five or more and for customers that aren't good tippers. "But some Canadians come in, they spend like $100 or $150 and they leave the wait staff maybe a $1.00 tip," she said. "It happens pretty often. I realize that the Canadians think it's discrimination, but on all the receipts it's printed out on bottom—'we suggest an 18 or 20 percent tip.' "
The Hong Kong-born Kong added that it's not only Canadians who are poor tippers. "Asians do it also. But it seems that Canadians tip the worst."
Like Bardin, Kong lets her servers decide whether to add on a gratuity. This is a necessity, said Nan Seagroves, who has been a waitress at Asiana for two years. "A lot of Québecois come to eat and we give them good service," she said. "We ask them how is the service, are they happy with it? They said they are, but most of them didn't leave the tip. Just this morning we got some who had a $40 bill and they left 5 cents."
Part of the problem, perhaps, is that Burlington restaurants have no uniform code on how much to charge foreigners in tips, so it varies from spot to spot. What's more, many cafes and restaurants in Europe and Canada automatically include a gratuity in the bill, and many tourists expect it to be similar in the States.
"Waiting tables in France is a profession--you have health insurance and paid vacations and minimum wage. It's a completely different approach to the profession," said Humbert. "Here people who wait tables don't have health insurance, no paid vacation. They can barely build up their Social Security because their salary base is to low. You cannot make a profession of it unless you work at a high-end restaurant and make a lot of money."
According to the Commission des normes de travail, which is comprised of employers and employees from Quebec, Québecois wait staff earn a minimum of $8.55 an hour, plus tips.
In Vermont, on the other hand, servers earn a mere $4.10 an hour, but if they don't earn at least $8.46 in tips in any given hour of work, their employer must make up the difference.
Humbert explained that she was a local, and her server removed the extra gratuity. Humbert then left a 15 percent tip.
Though she said she understands why servers might add on a tip, she does see it as discrimination. But she's glad the situation opened up a dialogue. "It's not something we talk about, tipping," she said. "But I think everybody has an opinion about it. Everybody has been thinking about it but not talking about it, and this was a good event to kind of raise the question about people who tip well, people who don't' tip well, waiter and waitress wages, cultural differences."