Why are waiters and waitresses treated so badly?

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I lead a good life, and that life is made possible by the hard work of many people—many of whom earn less than I do.  As I get older, I eat more meals in restaurants, and it makes a difference to me whether the waiters and waitresses know their business (they usually do) or not.  They’re on their feet almost all the time, they have to keep track of orders and notice when customers need their attention, and they maintain a cheerful, friendly appearance, even at the end of a long day when they may not feel like it.

Nearly one in 10 American workers, a total of 13.1 million people, are employed in the restaurant industry, and they’re among the worst-treated of American workers.  According to an article by Matt Frassica for Salon:

  • Restaurant employees receive the lowest wages of all employment categories tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  In 12 states, the minimum wage for workers who receive tips, such as waiters, waitresses and bartenders, is $2.13 an hour, the lowest allowed by minimum law.  Many other states (but not all) set a sub-standard minimum wage for tipped workers.
  • One survey indicates that nearly 90  percent of restaurant workers are without paid sick days, vacation days or health insurance.
  • Employers commonly violate federal and state labor laws, by engaging in wage theft (not paying for all hours worked) or requiring tip pooling.
  • Only about 1 percent of restaurant workers belong to labor unions.  Most of those work for hotels and casinos in Nevada, which are able to earn a decent profit while paying decent wages.

Many people have the mistaken idea that waiters and waitresses earn federal minimum wage, and that a tip is something extra that a customer gives out of benevolence or as gratitude for extra-good service.  The fact is that tips are regarded as part of their base compensation, which is why laws so often allow sub-minimum wage pay.

I suppose the ultimate answer is a stronger labor union movement and better federal and state labor laws, but I’m not going to hold my breath until these come about.  The least I can do is to leave an adequate tip (20 percent) and treat waiters and waitresses with normal human courtesy.

Click on Restaurant horror show: How waitstaffs are mistreated for Matt Frassica’s full Salon article.

Click on BIG SHOT and read the post and comment thread for blow-by-blow descriptions of encounters between restaurant servers and obnoxious customers.  Servers sometimes have ways of striking back.

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4 Responses to “Why are waiters and waitresses treated so badly?”

  1. Atticus Says:

    I always tip my (good) waiters and waitresses well. Usually around 20%; however, I don’t think raising their hourly wage is necessarily a good idea. For one, a lot of restaurants are mom and pop type shops that couldn’t afford any more overhead. They would go out of business leaving us with nothing but characterless chains.

    Also, I think it is a good thing that service oriented positions wages are tied directly to the service they provide. A good waitress receives excellent tips while a bad waiter receives less.

    Another factor that isn’t taken into consideration is that most waiters and waitresses do not report their full income. When my wife was in college she would make up to $200 in a single night and pay $0 in taxes on that income.

    I’m guessing gathering “true” income data on server-staff would be very difficult and subject to a large error deviation.

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    • philebersole Says:

      My guess is that most family-owned restaurants treat their help better than chain restaurants following a corporate personnel policies.

      My belief it that the only situation in which paying a living wage would put you out of business is when you had a competitor who wasn’t paying a living wage.

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    • History of Capitalism Says:

      Most restaurants these days do forced-pooled-tips through the restaurant management (even though everyone always grumbles about the legality of this practice) and most tips come through credit card anyway, which generally means that it shows up on your paycheck. I have not yet worked at a restaurant where my tips were entirely tax free: either fully reported or only reported if they came in off credit card, aka over half of income reported.

      Also, don’t forget the other cost-saver for small restaurants: immigrant labor. I have yet to work in a restaurant where the food was not mostly made and the dishes mostly washed by Mexicans or Guatemalans who seem to work seven days a week from before opening to after closing. I have never felt much reason to ask actually find out if their papers are in order.

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  2. Times I’ve Needlessly Annoyed Servers | Most of This (Probably Never) Happened Says:

    […] Why are waiters and waitresses treated so badly? (philebersole.wordpress.com) […]

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