Saturday, August 4, 2012

An ode to waitresses and waiters

Recently I sat at a restaurant table, watching the waitresses and waiters work. They were busily taking orders, delivering drinks, clearing tables as some customers departed and preparing for those who were waiting, seating customers, and engaging in friendly banter. It was fascinating to watch. Theirs are complex jobs demanding genuine skill. On their feet all day, they balance heavy, hot plates on arms and shoulders, move gracefully between tables, serve food and pour water while keeping track of whose orders haven’t been taken and whose orders are ready for delivery.

There’s a bit of ballet in what they do and a whole lot of very hard work. It’s hard to believe there is a more difficult and demanding job.

Among those I watched was an older woman whom I guessed would have rather been enjoying her retirement. I really know nothing about her but for her appearance, yet I am guessing she does this hard work eight hours a day for one reason. She can’t afford not to.

Many were younger. Some were undoubtedly single parents. Females make up about 71% of food service workers. They are three times more likely to be single parents than their male colleagues. Most are working this job and at least one more to make ends meet.

But they are not making ends meet. Most work this hard for poverty wages. They take home little in exchange for those long, tough days. According to the 2012 Basic Economic Security Index, 9 of 10 female servers and three-fourths of male servers aren’t paid enough to enjoy basic economic security, which includes housing, utilities, food, transportation, child care, health care, emergency and retirement savings.

Few restaurants provide either health insurance or paid sick leave, much less a livable wage. If a worker or her child becomes ill, the parent suffers the loss of a day’s pay and incurs medical expenses far outside her household budget.

Most of these skilled workers are paid far below the minimum wage, itself a meager $7.25 per hour or about $15,000 per year for a 40-hour week. Because of a provision of federal law called the “tip credit” these workers can be paid as little as $2.15 per hour.  The minimum wage together with tips fails to provide 85% of food workers with a “living wage” adequate enough to pay for basic necessities like rent and food.
Forty-five states have established slightly higher sub-minimum wages. Wyoming is not among them. Efforts to repeal the state tip credit have been unsuccessful.
Those who serve your table are among the lowest paid workers in America. A recent study revealed that U.S. food industry workers are three times more likely to live below the poverty line than other citizens.
As a voter and a customer, there are two things you can do. One, ask your legislator to repeal the tip credit. Two, tip well. (The simplest to calculate is 20%. Move the decimal point one place to the left and double the amount.) Leaving an extra buck or two won’t break your bank but it might help her pay the rent.
Some years ago a banker friend and I went to lunch at a restaurant his bank had financed. The business was successful, tables full, a line at the door. After lunch, my friend drove me by the home of the restaurant owner. It was an impressive abode. My friend described the interior and all the expensive extras the house had as I looked at the beautifully landscaped outside. As we drove away, I said, “It is wonderfully generous of all of his employees to work so hard for such low wages so that their boss can live like that.”
But then, it has always been the slaves who build the pyramids.

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