Here’s a Tip: Pay People Fairly

>>Original byline: EMILE WAMSTEKER/BLOOMBERG NEWSIt seems like a rite of passage. At some point, you’re bound to work in a restaurant. Honestly, I think if we all spent some time as a server, we’d treat each other a whole lot better. The first summer I worked, I worked at a seafood restaurant. Because I don’t want a lawyer to knock on my door, I’ll keep the name to myself, but it had the word “crab” in it.

If I had a dollar for every time a sleezy guy came in and said, “So y’all got crabs, huh?” with a gritty, sexual leer, I might have actually made a decent wage that summer. Sexual harassment is an alarmingly common problem for servers, particularly women.

That summer I survived on my $2.13 an hour and tips. Counting on tips is like gambling at the casino – only you don’t want to be there and your “lady luck” is dependent on the whims of customers. It was particularly bad for me that summer. It was in Atlanta in 1996 and there was an influx of foreign restaurant patrons from countries where tipping wasn’t done, or at least not to the extent that it is done here.

I remember one night getting a table of Swedes who ordered tons from the bar, plenty from the raw bar and salads – all items that in our system triggered an automatic “tip out” to other staff, based on a percentage of what is ordered. I KNEW they weren’t going to tip, and since there were six of them, I asked my manager if I could add 15% to their bill. He refused. They left me a quarter. When this happens to a server, especially in more established restaurants with automated systems, it costs the server money to serve you. I still had to pay out to other staff for what they ordered, and literally paid for part of their meal.

This is why our country needs to take a serious look at how we compensate our tipped employees. They exist for our pleasure. Part of the fun of dining out (other than trying new food) is the fact that you can sit and relax and focus on the people you’re with. When you go to a hotel, they’re there to carry your bags so it can feel like a real vacation.

Restaurant servers provide the diner with a break, but $2.13 an hour is breaking them, and it’s getting worse every year. The hourly wage for servers has been stuck at $2.13 an hour for the last 23 years. Every year as the cost of living goes up, the real value of what servers are making is diminished. Tack on a struggling economy — with restaurant patrons skimming off what they’d normally tip — and it’s even worse.

The >>Restaurant Opportunities Center is working to change that, lobbying for fair wage for tipped employees. According to the ROC, servers receive SNAP benefits at twice the rate of the rest of the population and are three times more likely to live in poverty. The Miller-Harken Fair Minimum Wage Act would raise the minimum wage for everyone, and tipped employees would get paid 70% of the new minimum wage. The Center estimates it would cost consumers an extra dime a day.

You can take action by signing this >>online petition. You can also keep this in mind as you approach everyday life. If you can’t afford to tip 15% or 20% when you go out to eat, choose a self-service restaurant, or stay home. If you get bad service, take a minute to analyze if it’s a result of an inattentive server, or a kitchen staff that’s doesn’t know what they’re doing. Even if you determine the service is less than stellar, tip at least 10%. These people are counting on the money to feed their family and put their kids through school. We all have a bad day, but last I checked, even on my bad days, my boss still pays me a fair wage.

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