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.