By Leijia Hanrahan
For many, waiting tables is a hold-over—a classic stop on the path to Hollywood stardom or a part-time gig after class. Others depend wholly on food-service to support themselves. Wages for tipped workers, however, are notoriously some of the least reliable around. Depending on the establishment, patrons, and prices, a server can make significantly more than their companions at, say, the local sporting goods retailer...or they can make virtually nothing. Or sometimes, literally nothing.
Let’s get some facts straight: it is legally required that tipped workers be paid an hourly base wage by their employers. In New York City, the legal minimum amount for that base pay is $4.30 per hour. Really. In my research for this article (and, for that matter, in my everyday life) I didn’t encounter a single server who was paid that much.
Certainly, in my time waiting tables, nothing that close has ever been offered to me. But I have encountered several people who receive no base pay at all, and must rely solely on tips. Mostly, employers get away with this by having everything “off the books”—that is, not keeping any record of how an employee is (or isn’t) paid. Whether they receive just tips or merely a base pay that is well below the legal minimum, it is almost impossible to successfully sue if a server walks out with cash at the end of the day instead of a check, because almost any legal process requires records, tax forms or some kind of paper trail.
Getting paid is a fickle process for servers. To a manager, a “slow day” means a smaller profit for the week or a handful of food products that have to be thrown out. To a server, a “slow day” can mean an angry landlord or a hungry child. Leah is a waitress at a small café in Queens, and while she is only supporting herself, she finds that making ends meet can depend on something as fickle as the weather. “If it’s raining, people eat in. There goes $50.”
And just because people come in, it doesn’t mean that a server will make a reasonable amount of money. “It’s not just employers,” Leah says. “These assholes come in who don’t know how to tip. I make two bucks an hour from my boss. I’m counting on people to be decent human beings and not stiff me. If they can afford gourmet sandwiches for the whole family, they can afford an extra five bucks for good service.”
From all of this, one might wonder why anyone would want to be a server in the first place. The truth is, in a packed city with a tight economy, food service work is often the only option. “I was looking for a job for two months before I landed this one,” Leah says. “And I mean, like searching really thoroughly. I can’t sleep on a friend’s couch forever. I had to take what I could get. And this was it. At least I make rent pretty regularly.”
So to all patrons of dining establishments, remember: if your tip comes out to less than 15% of the bill, you’re stiffing a hard worker who probably isn’t making much otherwise. With the tip, you’re not sending any kind of message to the restaurant—you’re buying someone’s groceries.
Monday, November 27, 2006
By Leijia Hanrahan