Keep your tips; I need change

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Imagine a dining experience without having to worry about how to split the tip—or about whether your server lives in poverty.

Cole W. Chernushin
Arvada, Colo.

These days, service professionals in the restaurant industry face widespread issues that often seem to be left on the table, completely untouched. From egregiously high rates of sexual harassment, to an average take-home pay of less than $16,000 a year (including tips), to a turnover rate close to 70 percent, being a waiter carries burdens many Americans appear not to be aware of. The question remains: what should we do about it? Well, for starters, let’s do away with tipping. Entirely.

The night has been coming to a close for some time now. With a full meal having been consumed, the waiter drops off the bill. Maybe you went out for something nice for you and the three others at your table. Maybe that bill reads something like $150. Maybe you ordered a few kids meals, no appetizers, only drank tap water, and your bill reads something like $70.

In both of these scenarios, if one were to tip what many consider the standard for adequate service (20 percent), the person whose job it was to convey your food order from the kitchen to your table, spark intriguing small talk, have full knowledge of the menu, and handle any other desire your table expressed, should walk away with somewhere between $14 and $30. Not bad for a single table. Of course, restaurants often require tips to be distributed to various members of the front and back of the house staff, so that number will often be diminished by somewhere around 5 percent. Less that deduction, one must also keep in mind that many tables will choose to tip from slightly to far less than the expected 20 percent. In reality, a waiter only makes close to 15 percent on a good table.

All of a sudden, the picture of working for a primarily tip-based wage begins to look a lot less savory. I posit that this picture should be radically altered within modern America. Servers and other restaurant staff provide an essential service, and the system we currently have in place often fails to provide the stability that working long, hard hours should provide.

The fact of the matter remains that the owners of a restaurant walk away with the lion’s share of the profits every day and night that their establishment is open for business. Even if the owners were required to pay a living wage of close to $15 an hour, by slightly adjusting menu prices upward by a single dollar, the restaurant’s bottom line would hardly be affected, and a waiter would be able to count on a far more reliable stream of income. So far, various studies have found inconclusive results on how higher minimum wage affects workers and restaurants. A distinguishing factor in how increasing the wages of servers can be mitigated is through up-charging the per-dish cost of a meal, effectively requiring the consumer to eat the cost. This certainly can sound like a deterrent for consumers, but one must also keep in mind that the consumer would also no longer be required to tip at the end of the meal. Imagine a meal without the stress of calculating how much you will be expected to tip out at the end. A meal where the waiter has not been running around all day, attempting to take on the maximum number of tables allowed, and frantically (though likely silently) hoping for each table to contribute essential wages to pay for anything from childcare, to medical bills, to rent. This thought exercise plays out in very real ways.

According to a report released by Restaurant Opportunities Center United in October 2017, over 50 percent of both male and female servers report being sexually harassed on a monthly basis by customers. The fact that servers are may only walk away with the wage of $2.13 an hour without tips undoubtedly plays into the power certain customers feel when deciding how to treat their server. Waiters should not have to be your best friend at every meal to “earn” the right to a living wage. In the best of circumstances, we ask for a fake smile. But in the worst of times, that fake smile must be held while also receiving comments that degrade the personhood of the server being harassed. This cycle undoubtedly plays into the incredibly high turnover rate of waiters (53.5 percent). If more servers could reasonably hope to stand up to creepy customers, more servers would stay within the profession, which one can reasonably assume would lead to a higher quality of servers who carry far longer tenure than under current conditions.

By increasing the base wage for servers, we would give far more strength to the position of wait staff. If a table treats a server in wretched ways, with a high base wage, the server doesn’t have to worry about being punished by proxy by missing out on essential wages (tips). Instead, the onus would be put on customers to carry their end of the transaction unless they want reciprocal poor treatment.

America has long been a service-based economy, and the sooner we come together to expect more from our nation’s businesses, the sooner everyday Americans can begin accumulating wealth and stoking far larger flames within the engine of our nation’s economy. In reality, we can have our cake and eat it, too. If one truly believes that the pressure of receiving adequate tips leads to better service, then always feel free to tip your server. However, being a waiter will remain a disempowered job until we require that every waiter, regardless of the arbitrary opinions of those they serve, deserves to make enough money to live.

Further Reading
“Hospitality employee turnover rate edged higher in 2016” by National Restaurant Association. Restaurant.org: www.restaurant.org/News-Research/News/Hospitality-employee-turnover-rate-edged-higher-in “The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry” by the Restaurant Opportunities Center: rocunited.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/REPORT_TheGlassFloor_Sexual-Harassment-in-the-Restaurant-Industry.pdf

Cole has a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Pacific Lutheran University. Currently they work several service jobs and eagerly await moving to Norway to pursue further education.

This article originally appeared in the April 6, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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