I spent most of my college life waiting tables. The heftiest chunk of that time was at the Chevy's in Times Square, where I spent weekends and evenings singing their bastardized version of "Happy Birthday" to the legions of yahoos who lied about it being their birthdays so they could get a free cartoon sombrero. I worked double shifts for measly ducats and endured name-calling, inappropriate touching, and serving entire off-off-Broadway casts who enjoyed dining on only free chips and salsa and paying in terrible renditions of Les Mis songs. I Dreamed a Dream, and that shit did not involve bringing you 50 baskets of chips in return for $5.
Honestly, waitressing wasn't all bad. I'm outgoing, enjoy making new friends, and love stealing fresh tortillas from el machino. In general, pouring giant pitchers of muy autentico bright orange mango margaritas to wannabe boy bands and tourists could be a good time. Sure, I suffered physically; if you're running around for twelve hours straight, your back and legs will pay the price. I could easily laugh off the losers who beckoned me to their table with, "Hey, red!" — they were the sad idiots eating at the Chevy's in Times Square, and I was laughing all the way to the bank.
However, let me be clear: the laughing to the bank part is key.
As Chelsea Welch, the waitress who was fired from Applebee's last week after posting a picture of a receipt, on which an idiot customer wrote "I give God 10%. Why do you get 18?" as her "tip," has spoken out in a new post for the Guardian:
I've been waiting tables to save up some money so I could finally go to college, so I could get an education that would qualify me for a job that doesn't force me to sell my personality for pocket change.
When a customer withholds a tip for whatever reason — be it because they didn't like the service, they're strapped for cash, they're cheap, they're disrespectful, or they're religious (??) — they are withholding livelihood for another human being. Nobody is waitressing for their love of the game; everyone's just trying to earn a living. Unfortunately, waitressing is a profession where your ability to live is dependent on the whims of an entirely unpredictable party. Or parties. Of 18. Who don't tip.
Welch explains how important tips are:
In this economy, $3.50 an hour doesn't cut it. I can't pay half my bills. Like many, I would love to see a reasonable, non-tip-dependent wage system for service workers like they have in other countries. But the system being flawed is not an excuse for not paying for services rendered.
I need tips to pay my bills. All waiters do. We spend an hour or more of our time befriending you, making you laugh, getting to know you, and making your dining experience the best it can be. We work hard. We care. We deserve to be paid for that.
There are 10,000,000 restaurant workers in America, and 2/3 of those earning sub-minimum wage are women. Even with tips, the average amount a restaurant worker brings home is $9/hour. If you're withholding those tips, how much do you think they're actually earning? The $2.13 minimum wage for servers hasn't changed since 1991.
So, no, there's absolutely no excuse for not tipping. If you think you have one, let's try to address the most common "reasons."
If you can't afford to tip at least 18 percent, then you cannot afford to eat out, period. No questions, no free "birthday" flan. Before going to a restaurant, look at the menu and do the calculations. If it's not in your budget, stay home and cook or choose a different restaurant. I'm not trying to beat you up for being poor, but servers are often living hand-to-mouth, too. If you clog up one of their tables and then don't tip, you have impeded their ability to make rent, buy groceries, and are potentially endangering them. It's not right.
If you've looked at your budget and decided you can afford to eat out, that's great. When you finish your meal and the check comes, you know what to do. In case you don't: You tip. No matter what. I don't care if you didn't like your waitress and the food was cold. You tip her. If you didn't like the waitress, that's tough titties; we don't live in a shiny happy world where everyone gets along. If the food was cold, you should've said something when it came out. Also, that's not your waitress's fault. Speak to the management, but don't punish her.
You know what? Sometimes waitresses have bad days, too. And you know how you have personal days you can take when you're sick or sad or your mom died? As hourly employees, waitresses don't have that. They miss a shift, they miss a paycheck. Because they're so reliant on their personalities to earn tips — aka almost their entire damn salary — they have to show up, rain or shine or swollen ankle. Just because she didn't tap dance for you enough — or, heaven forbid, didn't laugh at your jokes — you have no right to withhold her salary. Well, you technically have a right, but you're a terrible fucking person if you do.
Let me repeat: Even if the service was slow, your order was messed up, or all your dishes didn't arrive together, you still tip. Oftentimes shitty or slow service has to do with inept management, overworked employees, poor coverage (due to no shows by fellow employees), or an overwhelmed kitchen. None of that is your server's fault, so don't take it out on her.
And if you're the person who always gets terrible service, who always finds something to complain about at dinner, you need to look in a mirror. As the saying goes: If you meet five assholes in a day, you're probably the asshole. And still you rise. To dine out and make everyone else's lives hell.
Then there's the people who don't think it's their responsibility to pay for service, and that the restaurants should cover it. My best advice to you is to boycott restaurants then. Because it's not your waitress's fault the system is jacked.
I'm not sure what the answer is to ensuring that servers are paid the wages they deserve. Abolishing tipping seems to be the obvious answer, but these jobs would surely just become regular minimum wage jobs then. The hard work of a largely female force would continue being undervalued. The only possible solution I can think of is to make people understand that not tipping is not an option; it is a requirement.
Being a waitress is yet another job where skills and talents supposedly associated with women are underappreciated and exploited. As Welch points out, serving people is very hard work; you're emotionally taxed from the constant smiling, and physically taxed from the constant movement. And through it all, you're expected to meet the needs of a constantly changing array of customers and their various quirks.
As Sarah Jaffe says in her essay in In These Times, perhaps what Welch "was fired for was daring to publicly express dissatisfaction with her job." She continues, "even outside the workplace, emotional labor doesn't stop. (Just ask any woman if she's ever been told to 'smile' by a strange man on the street.)"
Perhaps withholding tips for perceived bad service is the equivalent of being told, "Fuck you, you're ugly anyway!" when you don't smile back on the street? Maybe it's another way to keep women in positions of physically and emotionally draining service in return for earning 70 percent of their male counterparts.
Whatever the case, the moral of this story is: Tip! Tip as if your life depended on it, because even if it doesn't, some woman's probably does.
Image by Jim Cooke.