Are you being served?

Tipping waiters and waitresses is supposed to be about rewarding good service. Unfortunately, in these tough economic times they also illustrate the injustice of piece work. Through no fault of their own, servers are today taking home fewer dollars for the same work.

You’ve probably been there. Sitting in your favorite restaurant, that is. Wondering what you’ll have for lunch or for dinner. Prices have gone up and you’re a little bit worried about whether you can afford that nice glass of beer. Instead you decide to not order the fabulous soup and you know that desert is probably out of the question.

But, when the check comes you are still a bit shocked by the total. It might be more than you were budgeting for. So, you don’t leave as generous a tip. Tonight it might just be 15%, less than you know the server earned. They were patient, courteous, and diligent in their service. But, through no fault of theirs, you can’t leave your normal, generous tip. At the end of the night, sadly, you know that they will be taking home less. No matter how hard they worked.

It gets worse. According to the Wall Street Journal, the minimum wage for servers in many states “has been stagnant at $2.13 an hour going as far back as 1991“. That doesn’t go very far these days. And, some chain restaurants are now requiring servers to share their tips with the folks who seat you, bus your table, and wash your dishes. This minimizes the labor costs for the restaurant with little perceptible difference to the customer.

It’s just like folks who are paid by the number of pieces they produce. As a result of factors outside their control, a worker can see their take home pay decline. Maybe the financial wizards didn’t put the company on solid-enough footing and so must now lower the company’s cost to service the debt. That might mean cutting the piece rate, or worse cutting the number of employees and insisting those who stay to work harder or put in longer hours. Or perhaps the marketing geniuses didn’t have a good year and demand for the product is drying up. Maybe the wrong product was being made or planted. Maybe the delivery contract was poorly negotiated and the product isn’t getting to market in a timely and consistent manner. The list goes on. But, in each case the factor leading to the decline is outside the control of the worker. And you can bet labor costs will be the first and easiest place that managers look to cut costs.

So, if you’re eating out tonight or enjoying a cool beverage at your favorite establishment, give a thought to your waiter or waitress. If the service is up to the usual standard, then tip a little more than you usually do. They’ll appreciate it and with any luck they will be able to stick-it-out through these tough times to serve you again some other time.