Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Please Tip Your Waitress

Yeah, I know, I'm not supposed to use the term "waitress" anymore, it should now be "server." I don't care. I'm a waitress and I'm okay with it.

In today's Chicago Sun-Times, the editorial section features an opinion by Steven Shaw called "Outdated tipping no longer ensures proper service." I actually think the article is pretty good. I didn't know that Thomas Keller, one of America's foremost chefs (didn't know that either) is stopping the practice of tipping in his New York City luxury restaurant Per Se. Instead of tipping, Per Se will use the European-style service charge and pay its servers an hourly wage. Apparently this move is strongly opposed by customers (who think the possibility of a good tip will get them better service), servers (who think we can earn more money in tips than we can in wages) and restauranteurs (who don't pay their servers anything and rely on customers to pay them). I, however, have this to say about Keller's decision: thank GOD! Finally someone in the restaurant business has some sense!

Tipping exemplifies the exploitation on which the restaurant industry in the United States depends. Any restaurant worker who receives tips -- servers, bussers, etc. -- is relying on the kindness of strangers for our rent money and those strangers can pay us anything they like or nothing at all (it happens). I think a business that doesn't pay its own employees -- as most American restaurants DON'T -- is just stupid. How can you build a staff when you don't pay them? Shaw makes the very good point that some of the most consistent and satisfactory restaurant service you can get is in places like McDonald's where the workers are paid an hourly wage, are strictly supervised, and there is no tipping.

I would love for the restaurant where I work to move to an hourly wage. Every since I began working at Carson’s last November I have been disappointed by my earnings. An hourly wage would allow me to budget and pay my bills consistently. I have yet to take home more than approximately $1,500 a month, which means I’m not even making $19,000/year yet. It’s a good thing I have no dependents to support.

Shaw’s article also points out the weak relationship between good service and a good tip. He says the highest tips tend to go to the servers who are the most well-liked, that is, the ones who crouch by your table for some good chitchat or who make you laugh the most. I don’t have the experience or anecdotal evidence to agree or disagree with Shaw’s statement, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were accurate.

And let me review: American restaurant servers do not receive an hourly wage. At all. All we take home is a part of the tip you leave. I'm serious. The reason it’s only part is that if the restaurant has bussers, food-runners, bartenders, hostesses, etc. they all get paid out of the tip you leave for your food server. If I manage to amass $100 in tips on a Saturday night, $15 of it goes to the bussers, $5 goes to the foodrunner and $5 goes to the bartender. I actually take home $75.

Please keep this in mind when you wonder if 20% is too high to tip for the mediocre service you just received. Even if it’s just three bucks, I still have to give the bussers, foodrunner and bartender their cuts, and even if my service to you was unsatisfactory, I still have to pay my rent. Consider the aggravating workers at places at the Department of Motor Vehicles or the U.S. Post office. You don't get to dock their pay for poor service, but you can dock mine, so please have mercy.

Tipping 20% really should be the standard at this point, but unfortunately some people still seem to think of a tip as a “gift” that servers receive on top of the wages from their employer. Once again, American servers don't receive any wages from their employer. There’s some funky accounting thing that restaurants do to make their servers’ paychecks look like the servers are getting wages from the employer, but we’re really not. To create my "paycheck," my restaurant basically asks how much I received in tips and then it divides that number into an hourly wage amount called “Regular,” an “Extra Tips” amount and a “Tip Credit” amount. The “Regular” hourly wage amount is $3.10 an hour (way below minimum wage), but it doesn't even matter because I never actually receive any of these documented amounts from my employer. These wage and tip amounts are simply derived from the amount of tips I took home during the time period in question and my "paycheck" is really just a piece of documentation with little dollar value.

Is the picture getting clearer? I hope so because American restaurants really should use the European model of the hourly wage which is much more consistent and humane, but since that’s not happening any time soon please tip reasonably ("reasonably" being at least 20%).

Thank you.

NOTE TO INTERNATIONAL TOURISTS: please keep in mind that American restaurants use this ridiculous practice called “tipping” and your server is trying to pay his/her rent and bills out of the amount of tip you leave behind. Please consider leaving a tip that is at least 20% of your total bill because American restaurants do NOT pay their servers. Thank you.

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