After any international travel, one cannot deny the unique experience that is American dining and customer service. Restaurants are staffed with dozens of waiters who are expected to handle a relatively small number of tables in a short amount of time but with a copious amount of breezy and informal small talk. In France, where I studied this summer, most of the restaurants I visited had only one or two servers who would wait on the entirety of the establishment. There was literally no time for the chitchat between diner and waiter that usually accompanies the American meal. French waiters are notoriously brusque, but what does the U.S. sacrifice in the name of attentive customer service?
The U.S. loses a more stable, efficient and personally invested workforce who cares about the success of the establishment. Much more than customer service is expected of individual French servers, but their efforts are compensated by a wage system that more fairly recognizes the amount of work they put in. They are full employees receiving a set salary, either hourly or monthly, earning between $20,000 and $67,000 a year, including health and retirement benefits and paid vacation. This system is possible because paying for service is compulsory. It is included in the bill and not left to the discretion of the customer. The rare additional gift goes straight to the pocket of the server.
In the U.S., many states, including Texas, adhere to federal minimum wage standards, which require tipped employees to be paid a base salary of $2.13 per hour, well below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. This base pay is expected to be supplemented by tips, which are subsequently considered income and taxed accordingly. “$2.13 an hour was not enough. Pretty much all of what you earn from that is taken out in taxes and I had a lot of paychecks come out to $0,” said sociology senior Tara Garvey, who worked 15-20 hours a week as a server during her sophomore year at the former Lucy’s Retired Surfer Bar and Restaurant off West Fifth Street. Should tips not exceed minimum wage, the employer is obligated to pay the employee the difference, though in practice this obligation is logistically difficult to implement and regulate due to servers’ irregular work schedules and the nature of the tip reporting process, which disincentivizes the reporting of pay discrepancies by the employee to the employer due to job security fears.
In theory, the tipping process is quintessentially American: If you work hard, you will be rewarded. In other industries, this adage is realized through bonuses, additions to an already livable salary based on a quantifiable element. They are not expected to comprise the majority of the salary.
“I think tips are a good way to motivate servers to give their best service,” Garvey said. In practice, however, it seems the tipping system has more influence on waiter behavior than tipping practices by the customers. Michael Lynn, a professor at the Cornell Hotel School who has written 51 papers on tipping behavior, found that a correlation does exist between the perception of service quality and the customer’s tip, but the service only factors into around 4 percent of the total amount tipped. When in some establishments servers are required to contribute to a tip pool shared among hosts, busboys, servers and other employees who interact with the customer, it seems the quality of service hardly affects the in-pocket income of a server.
According to a March White House report, “Workers in predominantly tipped occupations are twice as likely as other workers to experience poverty, and servers are almost three times as likely to be in poverty.” In response to this reality, some restaurants are experimenting with a no-tipping system. Restaurants like Brand 158 in Glendale, California, and Black Star Co-op Pub and Brewery in Austin have a no-tipping policy, paying their staff a living wage of $13-$16 per hour. Through this policy, Black Star has a mostly full-time staff with an average tenure of 1.9 years.
“We believe in equitable pay for our workers and ensuring that our workers earn enough income working here that they are able to afford necessities like housing, clothing, food and health care,” said Nicole Renaux, a business team member at Black Star. “It's great to know how much money is going to be in your paycheck. You don't have to worry about making rent if business is slow, and the other worker benefits at Black Star more than make up for missing out on big upswings in pay when it's busy.”
But reactions from servers at traditional establishments regarding this alternative system are hesitant. For some employees, the profits during peak tipped shifts more than make up for the loss during slow tipped shifts. According to Garvey, “The most money was made on weekends, which often made up for the slow nights. I really disliked working weeknights where I’d leave with only $20 or $30 or so, and it caused the servers to be more negative.”
Psychology senior Maricarmen Romero started working at Mr. Natural in East Austin after high school while attending Austin Community College in order to transfer to UT. During the school year, she sometimes worked more than 25 hours a week. “At bigger restaurants that are busy all the time, I think that the current system works,” Romero said. “I know friends [at such restaurants] that sometimes end up making $20 an hour or more. However, in smaller restaurant like the one I worked at, a flat rate would be nice. It assures you that you will leave every day with a decent pay.”
Despite the hesitancy, it cannot be denied that the American service industry today is sporadic and not conducive to long-term work. Luckily, many customers today understand that tipping is the norm and not the exception for exceptional service. But based on testimony from servers with whom I’ve spoken, other factors like scheduled shifts and what the table orders have a disproportionate effect on the income of the server that is unrepresentative of his or her performance in his or her duties. It is difficult to be a functioning member of society without a stable and reliable income. To usher in this often looked-down-upon subset of the American workforce from the fringes of society, there needs to be systematic change in the restaurant pay structure to ensure a sustainable lifestyle that will benefit the server, the restaurant and ultimately, the customer.
Haight is a Plan II and linguistics senior from Austin.