You and your friends are at a restaurant. You’ve finished eating and have gotten your bill. Ignoring the tip line completely, you pay only for the food itself — you’re on a tight budget as you use up the last of your birthday money or meager savings from your part-time job. After all, the tip is optional.
If what I just described rings a bell, we need to talk. When I started working at a restaurant, I didn’t understand why my coworkers would covertly groan at the sight of, say, five teenagers entering the door. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m easily offended by teen stereotypes (no, we’re not all lazy, and yes, we can function without our phones.) But their vexation makes sense to me now. It isn’t uncommon for a table of teens to order $75 worth of food but leave only three or four bucks in tips (a five percent tip, in case you’re mathematically-challenged like I am). Teammates binging after a grueling practice, friends celebrating a sixteenth birthday, servers preparing for financial letdowns — it’s a disappointing pattern.
The truth is that most employers pay their servers just over $2 an hour. This low wage may shock people as most would assume everyone in food service makes at least the NC minimum wage of $7.25. But, as outlined by the US Department of Labor, there’s a caveat: if a server makes $30 in tips per month, his or her employer can opt to pay a so-called tipping wage of $2.13.
On a good night, when there is sufficient flow of customers who all tip fifteen or twenty percent, a tipping wage isn’t an issue. In fact, servers can make significantly more than they would under a $8 or $9 hourly wage. But on a bad night, when customers skimp on tips (yeah, I’m talking to you), an hour of work is barely enough to buy a Starbucks coffee.
There are various reasons why one might not tip. Sometimes you have to wait too long for food. Sometimes the food tastes bad. Granted, these problems are annoying, but they are no reason not to tip; you tip for the service, not the food. Did your server bring you your drink, take your order, answer your questions, and bring your check? Then tip them. (Keep in mind that they’ll also be cleaning your table after you leave.)
There are many questions about tipping that I’m unqualified to answer: for example, is a tipping wage really the best option? Would a fixed hourly wage be better? These questions are important ones, but in the meantime, we can all agree that $2.13 an hour just isn’t enough.
Illustration by Ruby Handa