Dishin’ That: Nothing easy about minimum wage versus living wage

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From a reader:

“In one of your latest columns, you mentioned about leaving tips in cash form, and not on the credit card. My thought has been to leave the tip on the card so that the server has to declare this as income, thus contributing towards their Social Security total in the future. And also to properly share their tips with bartender or kitchen help. Is my thought process outdated and I need to rethink my position?” — Gloria M.

When I first opened Gloria’s email, I thought someone was mocking me by bringing up credit card tipping as a given, extra Social Security contributions, and “proper” tip share. Then, it dawned on me that the reader’s mindset is that of hospitality ownership, someone who has never waited tables, or someone who thinks servers make 50 percent tips on a regular basis.

Believing in the best of people (my readers in particular), I’ll answer the two-part question as clearly as I can.

The State of Maine Department of Labor website states that a tipped employee who makes more than $30 a week can be paid a minimum wage of $3.75 an hour. In the city of Portland, this figure remains the same, even though non-tipped minimum wage went up to $10.10. (Don’t get me started.)

That means $3.75 an hour, plus claimed tips of at least $6.35 an hour, make up a server’s pay structure. If a server doesn’t average $6.35 an hour in tips in any given week, the employer must fork over the difference.

Here’s the heart of it. Anything above $6.35 an hour in tips is how servers make a living wage, which is rarely the same thing as minimum wage. Additionally, we are fully taxed on the $10.10 an hour regardless, so we already are contributing to our Social Security, and paying our debt to society.

Your concern for our future is admirable, but consider this: For many of us, bartending and waiting tables is a second or part-time job, which is cash driven. There are servers who claim 100 percent of their tips as a rule because they need to show as much income as possible to buy a car, or pre-qualify for a house.

However, one thing is clear. Each restaurant has mandatory minimums of what must be claimed, and I am not advocating claiming below that given amount. In most cases, it’s something like 100 percent of credit card tips and 8 percent of cash sales. That’s usually more than $10.10 an hour, no doubt. I’ve said it before, but the gig isn’t the mad cash cow it used to be.

As far as “properly sharing” gratuity with the bartenders and kitchen, claiming credit card tips has nothing to do with it. If the policy is to tip out a certain amount, so be it. If your concern is that servers will pocket some of the cash and not go all in, rest assured management has ways of addressing that. Most will ask for a percentage of total sales, and don’t care if it comes from cash gratuity, a credit card tip, or a fiver in a birthday card from Aunt Shirley.

One exception to the set-percentage tip out is the questionable trend of everyone in the restaurant making above $10.10, and Big Pooling all tips, to be divided in some way between all staff. This would be ideal if everyone worked the exact same number of hours, were equally skilled, worked equally as hard, did the same amount of side work, setting up and closing, and, well, you get my point.

I’m sure there are formulas to account for variations in the Big Pool, but I’m not a believer. At least, not until I hear of benefits being offered (shout out to the places that do), since the restaurant aims to operate like a traditional business, with many full-time employees.

To sum it up: Servers and bartenders should claim at least what the house policy is. Those guidelines are in place to keep everything legal and consistent. So suck it up and do it, or get a different job.

And, requirements for tipping out support staff, and less frequently, the kitchen, should be made clear when a server is hired.

Lastly, Gloria, I’m sticking with the hope that you’ll tip in cash. Leave Social Security concerns and tip-out policies to the individual server and the house.

After all, making a living wage these days ain’t easy.

Peas & Q’s

I recently overheard two servers talking about a regular couple who use one of their restrooms for, shall we say, an intimate encounter. It isn’t a problem off-season, but a recent waiting line caused the manager to knock on the door to make sure everything was alright.

While I find this twistedly romantic and very amusing, I have to say finish dinner and get a room. Your magic moment is bad for business and unfair to other diners.

Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to nladd@theforecaster.net, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @Nhladd.

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