Minimum wage and the food service equation

David Chartrand

David Chartrand

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 and it applies in every state.  It also applies to the businesses who fail to inform employees about their duties and the law’s requirements.

If there were an Olympic competition for mocking wage rules America’s food service business would take home the gold. Exhibit A: Waiters and waitresses are left unaware that a little-understood exemption sets their official wage at $2.13/hour minimum.  It’s been $2.13 for more than 20 years .

The math is fifth-grade algebra. At $2.13 an hour, a  40-hour pay period produces a paycheck of $85.20 before taxes. It says so right there on the server’s pay stub.

That’s the part of the law restaurant owners cannot hide.  The part they’d rather not discuss goes as follows:  $2.13 an hour is only a down payment on a waiter’s services.  The law stipulates that employer and employee must periodically sit down and tally the employee’s tips. Tip income is added to the official wage paid by the employer. The sum then is divided by hours worked.  If the resulting quotient is less than $7.25 — the federal minimum — the employer must pony up the difference.  If it comes to more than $7.25 the employee wins the whole pot.

For a guide to the official sources of minimum-wage rules see:

A $2.13/hourly wage is how Congress protects America’s 10 million restaurant workers, except for the ones who have never heard any of this before. It applies to venues from The Waffle House to New York City’s Le Bernardin.  The Waffle House’s 25,000 employees may find this interesting.  The staff at Le Bernardin (jacket required) may find it irrelevant.

Waiters and waitresses learn all too soon the oxymoronic definition of “minimum wage.”  There is nothing guaranteed or “minimum” about tip income.  Customers can be generous, cranky, gracious, stingy, and inconsiderate. A server’s ability to earn tips, on the other hand, is directly affected by his employer.  He may be assigned the bustling air-conditioned dining room where giant flat screens carry Monday night football and tips flow like spilled beer. Or he may be assigned the outdoor patio, where there are no tips because there are no customers because we’re talking about a city where feet are blistered by summer and numbed by winter. For novice servers, the ability to earn tips is determined by employer training, which can be loosely described as the trial-and-error system. Server errors are judged without trial; sentence is served during the outdoor patio shift.

A 2013 Huffington Post investigation noted: “Low-wage workers are robbed far more often than banks, gas stations and convenience stores combined — and the perpetrators are their own employers.”

There are, of course, two sides to every story. The minimum wage story involves workers, employers, members of Congress, the President, and think tanks that issue alarming reports warning that any tampering with minimum wage laws will bring about oceanic convulsion and the vaporization of all life forms.  That would make four or five sides, but I lost count.  Sadly, the truth about hourly wages is kept under a shameless shroud of political hysteria, hyperbole and name-calling that cries out for a more sober voice. Meanwhile, the debate buckles under the same idiotic talk from political knuckleheads who lack the brains God gave to gravel. (What’s the point of being a humor writer if you can’t engage in hyperbole and name-calling).

In the beginning, the social agenda held that no wage protection was necessary in the case of tipped workers who secretly take home suitcases full of tip cash every night. A secret FBI investigation failed to turn up any such workers. Unaware of FBI secret investigations, the concept of overpaid tipped workers became accepted religion among those on Capitol Hill who know nothing about dinner tips.  Members of Congress do not eat at the Waffle House.  They dine at five-star restaurants where the complimentary breath mint starts at $15 apiece.  The meal tip is paid by a gracious dinner guest who reports the dinner expense to his employer, who, as it turns out, does business as the National Association of Realtors, which records the meal as a cost of doing business and does so without fear or guilt because, as it also happens, the NAR employs attorneys whose hourly fee is five times the dinner tab not counting the yummy breath mints.  Only rarely — during investigations by WikiLeaks or —are members of Congress made aware that their favorite waiter cashes his $2.13/hour paycheck for parking meter quarters while relying on meal tips to pay last month’s rent.

We hope the point is clear. If not, watch carefully as the whole nub of this article is in the next sentence. The federal minimum wage is debated each year with the same sincerity afforded to the existence of an Easter Bunny. This makes for considerable confusion. But, as confusion is the whole point, tipped employees must educate themselves. (I can’t do all the work. The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.)

Waiters and waitresses, especially newbies in training, may wish to consult the sources on the attached Web links. Compare this information with the information provided (or not provided) by your employers. It’s possible that certain need-to-know information was omitted during your job interview, or perhaps during your first two years of employment. It’s possible you were thrown into the deep end of the working-class pool without a lifejacket.

Keep treading water, and consider this advice: Respect your supervisors; revere none of them; ask lots of questions; question all the answers. When you are older and wiser, this will all make sense.

See Web sources:

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