As their gratuities tumble, America's waiters are on the tipping point

So you're glad you're not a Wall Street trader these days? At least they banked fat salaries and maybe got a golden parachute. The story's not so green at your local restaurant. These are bad times to be a server. Dangerous, even, because their tips have plummeted faster than the Dow Jones.

One New York City waiter has said that the bottom has fallen out for America's service professionals. He wrote that early this year, he'd make about $500 a week over five shifts. This summer, restaurant sales fell for the first time in two and a half years. Today, $270 for a full week is typical. People are guarding their cash, and they aren't coming into restaurants as much anymore. When they do, they're increasingly cheap. The 20% tip, once more or less standard for good service, is a memory. Some customers are merely rounding up to the nearest dollar.

The horror of this comes from the fact that many of our service professionals are vulnerable even in the best of times. They simply don't make an adequate hourly wage -- it's below minimum wage. They usually don't get insurance. They can be fired at the drop of a napkin. The expectations have been that they'd make plenty to live on through their gratuities, and if that failed, they could just switch to another restaurant. But with more people paying less in service charges, and with few places in need of new staff, that is now just a fantasy.

Most customers would never consider walking out of a restaurant without paying their bill in full. That would be theft. But because tips are discretionary, there are plenty of cheapskates who think nothing of bolting without a proper tip, or of justifying a dramatically reduced tip with some minor infraction. And now waiters (and bellhops, and valet parking attendants, and dozens of other ubiquitous workers) are finding it impossible to make their rents.

Holiday parties are on the outs, too, worsening the situation. ABC News, the force behind Good Morning America, 20/20, and lots of other multimillion-dollar franchises you'd think would be flush with spendy cash, has told its staff that there will be no holiday parties this year. Companies everywhere are doing the same thing. A bartender who might not make lots of cash during regular business hours could at least count on stocking up on some extra money during the party season. But this year, the bars will be empty, and so will the staffs' pockets.

Foreign tourists are particularly susceptible to under tipping since it's not usually a requirement in countries with an adequate employee safety net. When they visit here, our system must be explained to them or they won't necessarily tip. In the United Kingdom, waiters are finding themselves with less money, too. A recent study by the British Post Office found that 36% of people decided not to tip at all unless service has been exceptional. Except that over the pond, wait staff usually earns a living hourly wage. Not so here.

Think about the knock-on effect of all this belt-tightening. One recent story in an Asheville, NC, paper quoted a restaurant manager who said that about 75% of his employees have children. If the empathy card doesn't sway you, also don't forget that as serving becomes more of an undesirable job, you're more apt to be served by someone who does a bad job because they just don't care.

It would be nice if our wage laws were written to make sure the people who take care of us were also taken care of. That's not socialism. That's civilization. And if that doesn't work, maybe restaurants should add a mandatory tip, as some are now doing to hang onto good employees.

My belief is pretty simple: Tipping is part of the deal. If you can't afford to go out and pay for everything, don't go out. Don't cling to the trimmings of a high life if you're only pretending you can afford it. Make yourself a peanut butter sandwich instead. Your waiter did.

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