Friday, October 17, 2003

To Insure Proper Service*

Kevin Drum reports that California restaurant owners want the minimum wage to tipped employees reduced. While I generally agree with Kevin's assessment (that any idea that the restaurants would pass those wages on to other, non-tipped employees is laughable, and that I'm generally getting sick of the whole "Anything that makes our stock price go up is good" thing that's infecting our business culture), I'm not sure that Kevin's view of the income such workers make is accurate.

Now, I'm in New York and not California, so it may well be that he's right, as far as California goes. I was shocked to see that California mandates an hourly minimum of $6.75 for tipped employees, because here in New York that figure is $2.90 an hour. That's right, servers in New York get paid less per hour than the regular minimum wage, and they are expected to make up the difference in their tips. They are required to claim the amount of tips they make at the end of each shift, and in the event that this amount is not enough to bring their total hourly rate for the shift up to minimum ($5.25, last time I needed to know this), the restaurant is required to make up the difference.

Servers at the restaurants where I managed would occasionally try to either underclaim their tips so as to force us to pay them the difference, or at least they would complain that they weren't making the hourly difference in the middle of the shift. Our response was this: To equal the hourly minimum in an standard, eight-hour shift, a server must be able to make all of $19 in tips, and a server who can't make $19 in tips, in eight hours of waiting tables, is probably a server who doesn't belong waiting tables in the first place, unless something has happened in that shift to utterly kill business for that day. How much work does this entail, then? Well, if that server waits on just one table each hour (a stretch of an assumption), and that table spends just $20 (a fairly median amount in the restaurants I worked) and tips the straight 15%, that server will make $24 in tips, which is more than the amount needed to make minimum.

Of course, that's just cranking numbers to get to minimum. That has nothing to do with the more elusive idea of a "livable" wage, and whenever Kevin posts something about low-income workers, his comments are invariably filled with people who are under the impression that even in urban areas like Southern California one can live just fine on the minimum wage. In my restaurant experience, servers were always the highest paid employees (when you factored in tips), and in the largest volume restaurant of mine (Bob Evans, a family-style restaurant that's big in the East, Midwest and is growing in the South), my very best servers ended up grossing more than everyone else including the General Manager. So, I rather doubt that Kevin's on the right track when he says that "the overwhelming majority of waiters make only a few bucks an hour in tips".

(I should note that I never worked in a restaurant where servers shared tips with bussers, cooks and dishwashers, though. I know that practice exists, but I never saw it in play.)

I always had a tough time, as a restaurant manager, reinforcing the idea with my servers that they are in control of their compensation, because my general experience was that they were not. Tipping has become something of a robotic impulse these days, and few people really seem to put thought into how much to tip when it's time to pay the bill; they just do the 15% thing in their head (easy in New York, because all you have to do is double the sales tax, and you've roughly got the tip amount) and leave it at that. Large parties, though, very often seem to undertip, which is why many restaurants simply charge the gratuity up front for parties of a certain size or higher.

And servers, it must be admitted, can get a bit on the greedy side. If a customer came in and merely had a bagel and coffee, which came to something like $2.50, the server would occasionally scoff at the fifty cents the guy left behind, and they would be unmoved by my pointing out that they were tipped above the 15%. And income tax time always made for a fun period for us restaurant managers, because servers tend to be united in their belief that tip income should be tax-free. (They all believe this. They may not admit it, but believe me, they believe it.) Thus they were forever trying to figure out how to claim just enough to make the minimum and not one penny more. The IRS, though, has its own way of doing things: the dreaded "Allocated Tips" business, wherein the government assumes that a server working X hours should make $Y in tips, and if they claim less than that, the government simply taxes them on $Y anyway, often leaving the servers behind on April 15 if they ignored our warnings that this might happen. Every year, at least two servers in each restaurant I worked could be counted upon to run afoul of that little problem, and as every penny of my income was taxed as I made it, I never felt one jot of sympathy for them.

One last note: One of Kevin's commenters scoffs at the idea of paying servers too much, asking, "How much do you need to pay unskilled labor?" I really loathe the idea that servers are "unskilled". Managing a section of dining room, seeing that the customers there receive the correct items in timely fashion and insuring that their experience in the restaurant is a pleasant one, requires a great deal of skill. No, it's not surgery or writing computer code, but it's a skill, and believe me, not everyone has it, not by a damned sight. Those people carrying the trays in the restaurants aren't unskilled schlubs, they are people, and dammit, they should be treated and viewed accordingly.

* A myth exists that the word "tips" is actually an acronym for this phrase. This is false.

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