Friday, February 18, 2011

The Restaurant Trade -- equitable employers or sweat shops?

It's a job but is it a living?
"You work three jobs? … Uniquely American, isn't it? I mean, that is fantastic that you're doing that." —President George W. Bush, to a divorced mother of three, Omaha, Nebraska, Feb. 4, 2005
Much of the world laughed at these words, but the sad truth of today’s economy means this is reality for many: multiple part-time jobs. In these trying times when jobs are scarce and the jobless plentiful, any kind of employment may be seen as a godsend for those trying to keep body and soul together.

The restaurant trade is a labor intensive industry and most, due to the nature of the work and often grueling schedules required, suffer high staff turnover and are always hiring. Or so it seems.

Do they offer a reasonable solution for those desperate for work – any work?
What’s it like, working in a restaurant these days?

This writer decided to find out. Come with me as I join the legions of workers in the restaurant trade.

For the purposes of this article, the restaurant industry does not refer to the five-Michelin-star establishments where dinner bills are tallied in the hundreds, but the ho-hum- everyday-every-city restaurants, the national chains such as, Outback, Olive Garden, Chili’s, Applebees, Ruby Tuesday, Denny’s, Red Lobster, Hooters – those restaurants that dot the American landscape. In fact, in most suburban areas, the corporate chains make up 95% of dining out choices, at an average cost of $13.99 per plate.

The myth

According to Tom Emmer (Republican candidate (unsuccessful) for the office of Governor of Minnesota,) minimum wage legislation for the restaurant trade should be removed as “some wait-staff are making $100,000/year in tips,” and the money saved could be used “to stimulate more employment.”

Let’s leave aside if such a lofty income is probable or even possible for the moment, and the question of how removing minimum wages might create more employment – which beggars the imagination – or how it would do anything other than increase the profitability of the corporate restaurant entity, and take a look at what tips mean to the restaurant industry.

What happens when you leave a tip for your server in a restaurant?

Did you know the money you leave as a gratuity actually goes toward bringing a large percentage of the restaurant’s workers up to minimum wage? That’s right.

Here in Florida, the labor law as applied to restaurants is worded like this:
“An employee who regularly receives tips as a part of his or her pay also receives, under federal and Florida law, a minimum wage of $4.23/hr. In order to have this exemption from the minimum wage apply, the employee must regularly receive more than $30 per month in tips, and be allowed to keep all of his or her tips. The tips plus wages combined must add up to at least the $7.25 per hour minimum.”

(In perspective: The minimum wage of $7.25 per hour means I would have to work 27 hours just to pay my electricity bill for January of $193.00. My home (mortgage, insurance and taxes) requires my earnings of another 124 hours each month. My little car, costing me $150 month needs all the fruits of my labor for 21 hours. I would work 2 hours in order to purchase one meal in the restaurant in which I work.)
However, in the realm of the corporate restaurant, practice is otherwise.

Servers are required to enter their tips into the computer system for each shift and a portion goes into the ‘tip-sharing pool’ to be shared with those staff also deemed ‘tipable,’ such as the host or hostess, the food runners who assist in serving, the bartender, the ‘expo’ (quality control person who gives final approval on each dish before it is served.) All of these positions are considered tip-earning and paid only the base of $4.23 even though they do not directly receive gratuities from the patrons.

Yes, that 15-20% of your bill you so generously leave in appreciation of good service does not rest in the pocket of the hopefully smiling server, but supplements the restaurant’s employee costs across the board.

(In case you were thinking "well don't claim all your tips, then," consider this. In every restaurant there are sections more popular than others, and assignment to the better sections is based on your performance -- which is measured by your tips to sales ratio. So if you don't claim all your tips in order to put some in your pocket, you will find yourself working the four tables right beside the kitchen where nobody wants to sit and is unhappy if placed there, making less money anyway. Yes, sir, they got you every which way.)

Did you know?
Neither did I.

Meet lmmartin, hostess

Follow the link below to share in my adventures as a hostess in a local restaurant, part of a national chain. 

I hope you enjoy this inside view of the labor practices of the restaurant trade. It only cost me a few weeks of hard work, and two very sore feet.

Sincerely yours,


1 comment:

  1. Hi Lynda - when I worked in restaurant-Pub-lounge, I discovered many different things affect tips. If the food is not well prepared or served promptly enough to suit the patrons (kitchen backlog) then the diners take it out on the wait staff. It's a tough job and thankfully I only had to stand in as a waitress when someone didn't show up. Mostly I did payroll which opened my eyes to the reality.