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Commentary: Waitstaff and the minimum wage

by on April 12, 2014 10:39 AM

So you think the federal minimum wage is $7.25? Well, that’s for people who do not get tips, or rather for those who are not recognized to get tips.

If you are restaurant waitstaff, your minimum wage is just $2.13. That is because it is assumed tipping will make up the difference.

Now if you are tending bar at a top restaurant in a big, prosperous city, that is probably a pretty good deal — so long as you are healthy and can show up to work regularly. Cocktail waitresses in the right establishment can do even better.

Gender counts here, and as out-of-town businessmen on expenses enjoy their beers, their affection for waitresses can grow and show itself in lavish tips.

That is the high end, where money and booze are at work. Likewise in expensive restaurants, waiters can make a passable living, even a good living, so long as they get to work the hours they want. Breakfast sucks, lunch is not what it used be in the days of three martinis, and dinner is still waiter Eldorado.

The rub (isn’t it always?) is down the line, where there is less money sloshing about.

At so-called family restaurants, individually owned, or in chains like Denny’s and IHOP, it is a different reality. No one gets rich bringing out the hamburger and fries or French toast.

In the world of tipping, taxis are incongruous. If tipping, as allegedly it was defined by the great wordsmith Samuel Johnson, means “to insure promptness” then taxi drivers should lump it. They drive, you pay and there is no element of special service detectable in most cases. But tips are expected, even if the chap has been on the phone to God-knows-where at the top of his voice for the entire trip. Often the car is jalopy and he does not know the way.

Barbers get a little extra and in beauty parlors, tips are very important. On pleasure fishing boats, well, as the sign, says “the mate works for tips.”

Not only do a lot of people work for tips, but they are, for the most part, the working poor and frequently the hours are bad.

It seems that the number of tipped jobs is growing. Or, to be more correct, the number of jobs where the employees are trying to supplement with tips, appears to be on the rise.

In all kinds of places, like bakeries, convenience stores, gas stations, glass jars with improvised signs seek your benevolence. More and more people who serve the public are trying to supplement meager incomes with tips.

The French, long ago, institutionalized tipping in restaurants by including it in the bill at 12.5 percent. But in Japan, tipping is not part of the culture. In the United States, 20 percent has become a kind of standard; while New York is higher at 25 percent. When I worked as a waiter in Manhattan, the word was that men with brown shoes, and their female equivalents, were from the sticks and expected you to genuflect for 10 percent. Didn’t happen.

Where the bulk of someone’s income is from tips, there has been a transfer of wage responsibility from employers to customers. Some hotels, especially in resort areas, urge you to tip the maid. Of all the tipping, that is the one I do most willingly.

Maybe it is my own aversion to housework — and especially to making beds — that drives me to open my wallet. It is also that no one who does housekeeping in a hotel is on an upward arc in their lives.

As tipping spreads, as it appears to be, so does the sense that, like much of the Third World, we have become a country that is for sale, one person at a time: low wages, low standards, low expectations.

That glass jar on the counter soliciting tips tells a story, and not a pretty one. For “Tips” read, “need.”



Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of "White House Chronicles" on PBS. His column is written for Hearst Newspapers.
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