Thursday, February 4, 2010

Pet Peeve Thursday--Nickel And Dimed

By Guest Blogger Wendy Lyn Watson, author of the A La Mode Mysteries

BAD TIP Our family didn’t eat out much when I was a kid, at least not in restaurants where you didn’t schlepp your own food on a plastic tray.  On those rare occasions when we splurged, my mom, my sister, and I had to engage in some serious cloak and dagger maneuvers.  My dad, you see, was a notoriously stingy tipper.  He had no qualms leaving $5 on a $45 tab.

In one classic pas de trois, mom and I would go to the bathroom, where she’d hand off another $5 or $10 to me, then when we were back at the table, my little sister would tell one of her infamous lame jokes to distract my dad, while I slipped the bills onto the table and under my napkin.  Then we’d all cross our fingers the waitress got the money instead of throwing it out.  We just needed the “Mission Impossible” theme song, and we could have taken our act to the big screen.

My obsession with tipping etiquette only grew as I spent years working as a waitress in some pretty low-rent dives.  One place in particular--I kid you not, it was called the Flim-Flam Diner--I never made more than $3 in tips on a five-hour shift.  And I had to put up with everyone from the manager to the busboys groping me at the pass-through.  Not good for morale

Restaurant My dad’s rationale for leaving such meager tips was that the waitresses were just doing their job, and why should they get paid “extra” for just doing their jobs?

Except tips aren’t “extra.”

Since 1991, the Federal minimum wage for hourly workers has gone from $4.25 per hour to $7.25 per hour.  But the federally mandated minimum wage for tipped employees has remained at the low, low rate of $2.13 per hour.  Without the tips, that comes out to under $4500 a year for a full-time employee. 

Technically, employers are supposed to supplement that $2.13 per hour if their employees’ wages plus tips come in under $7.25.  Maybe some restaurants and bars do the math and pad those wages, but none of the restaurants I worked for (including a national chain) ever asked me what I made tip-wise. 

And I know what you’re thinking:  all those tips are tax-free, right?  Au contraire!  In the absence of accurate tip information, employers are supposed to assume tipped employees make 8% of their receipts in tips.  So if I sold $1000 worth of food and drink during my shift (pretty common when I worked graveyard shift at a college-area 24-hour chain), my boss and the IRS assumed I made at least $80 in tips and withheld taxes accordingly.  Let me tell you, there weren’t many nights when I actually made the $80 I got taxed for.

Waiting tables is rough work.  The customers snipe at you when the kitchen takes too long or gets their food wrong, and the kitchen yells when you make special requests or take back cold/salty/bad food.  You walk around with about 30 pounds of cutlery, hot food, and full beverage glasses balanced on your shoulder.  In many restaurants, you’re expected to make the salads and prep the desserts yourself.  You end the evening stinking of French fries and frustration.  And you’re supposed to do it all with a smile.  Doing it for $2.13 per hour?  No way.

TIP These days, money is tight for lots of people.  But when you are deciding whether you can afford to eat at that new restaurant down the road, you have to anticipate the real cost:  the menu prices plus the tax plus the TIP.  And if you take up a table in a busy diner for a whole hour, you need to leave a buck or two tip, even if you just had coffee; maybe your waiter didn’t have to spend much time on you, but you were depriving him of a chance to wait on other, more lucrative customers and effectively driving down his hourly wage.

Money is tight for lots of people, including those who wait tables.

Whew.  That felt good.  Are there greater injustices in the world?  Of course.  But lowballing your waitstaff is my pet peeve.

Did you ever sling hash for a living?  Did it change the way you treat service employees?  Got horror stories to share?
I Scream, You Scream Wendy Lyn Watson is the author of the Mystery A La Mode series.  Her first book, I Scream, You Scream is now available.  Visit Wendy's web site.