printable research paper.

Although the category of low-wage work covers many different professions, for this project I chose to focus on restaurant workers. Similar to the style in which Schlosser wrote Fast Food Nation, I want to discuss not only the most obvious jobs but also the more discreet professions as well. My main focus is on restaurant employees in general that earn minimum wage plus tips, but with an emphasis on dishwashers and kitchen staff that may be at the bottom of the food chain. Like Shipler, there are personal stories from servers I worked with and also from restaurant employees that I interviewed. I feel that I have a strong personal connection to this topic because, like Ehrenreich, I have actually worked this job and understand the ways in which restaurant politics and finances work. 
My main focus is on the amount of tip money that servers actually personally receive, rather than the restaurant, and also the way that other positions (dishwasher, busser, cooks) are tipped out at the end of the night. Because I worked several different positions in my own experience working in a restaurant, I can also incorporate the experiences that I myself encountered working for minimum wage. Overall, I want to answer the question of whether minimum wage, even the highest minimum wage in the state of Washington, is actually a livable wage and question the standards and realities of the tipping process.

In general, the tipping process is very misunderstood, especially by those leaving the tips. When customers leave a tip, whether it is in a restaurant or for any other service, most would assume that the money would be going straight to those workers that provided the service. However, this is no always the case. According to California state law, tipping pools are not to include the management or owners of restaurants. If there is a mandatory tipping pool in a restaurant, it must include the employees that regularly come in contact with customers and are commonly tipped (servers, hostesses, bussers, bartenders), but not any kitchen staff, dishwashers, cleaning crew or any other employee that does not directly serve the customers. The most common tipping breakdown is for the servers to keep 80% of the tips while bussers earn about 15% and the bartender can take home 5%. Tips are lawfully required to go to those who “earned it” although there is no clear definition of what constitutes whether or not an employee as “earned” their tips. For example, although dishwashing may not be the most glamorous job in the restaurant field and they do not commonly talk to or serve customers, their job is important and essential for the restaurant to function and succeed. Although dishwashers are considered to be at the bottom of the food chain in the hierarchy of restaurant positions, they should “earn” tips based solely on the fact that they work hard and the work they complete is necessary for any other position to succeed and eventually to serve the customer.

Many articles have discussed the complex relationship between servers and customers. The restaurant servers are willing to bend over backwards for the tables they wait on if it means getting a larger tip at the end of the night. Similarly, customers may be more demanding knowing that they will reimburse their server in tip money and simultaneously assume that all the money they leave is going where they intend it to go: the workers. People tip because it is custom here in the United States and also because they want to avoid any guilt from not tipping. Deep down, most customers probably know that their friendly and helpful server hardy makes enough money to pay the bills or feed their family. This knowledge that restaurant workers hardly earn a living wage prompts people to leave greater tips to the server, but little do they realize that there are many other employees who hard word escapes the tip pool.

One server hostess that I interviewed from an upscale restaurant explained that there are few perks in her profession, although she has been working there for two years. Courtney explains that the hostesses can snack on bread or fountain drinks, but only when the crowds die down; she gets no break. Upon inquiring about tipping, it is clear that Courtney feels bitter about the topic. In the restaurant she works in, there are three different shifts for the hostesses. One shit last two hours in a slow time period while another is five hours long and includes the dinner rush. Courtney explains that the servers give some of their tips to the hostesses where it is divided equally, even though the length and quality of the work during the various shifts is not even. Furthermore, Courtney understands that the tipping of the dishwashers is even worse. “Sometimes they get tipped, but it is just however much each waitress wants to give them… It’s really random and no one cares enough to regulate it and see how much of a percentage they are giving,” she explained.

Further in my research, I interviewed a male waiter, Sam, who has been working in the restaurant scene for most of his working life. He explains that at his work, it goes as an unspoken and unwritten rule that the busser should be tipped about 20% when there is no bartender and then about 10% if there is a bartender working. However, he admits that he does not really know how the other servers tip and if they adhere to this rule or over or under tip the busser. When asked about the kitchen staff, Sam answers that he might tip the cooks if they had a very busy night but they normally are not tipped because they earn $15 an hour, rather than the $8.55 minimum wage that all the other positions earn. Upon asking about whether or not dishwashers are tipped, Sam replied that they are not tipped and when asked why, he simply shrugged his shoulders and explained, “They are at the bottom of the food chain. That’s how it is.”

Another waitress I talked to on the subject of tipping worked in a less expensive restaurant than the others and claims that serving inexpensive food is her main complaint with the tipping system. Debbie works long hard shifts, but her tips have little to show for it. Running up and down the stairs with trays of food and drinks exhausts this young woman, and still she earns a meager amount of tips. Although she works equally, if not harder than waitresses in elegant and expensive restaurants, she makes less than them. Debbie explains that as a server it is incredibly frustrating to try and make sense of the tipping system, in which servers receive a certain percentage of the bill as gratuity. “The amount that food costs does not determine how hard the waitress/waiter works. I work my [expletive] off and have nothing to show for it in tips,” she explained. Debbie, along with many other servers, wishes the standards for tipping were based on the amount of customers or the number of courses and drinks ordered rather than the amount of the bill so the tip would reflect on their own hard work and service rather than the costliness of the restaurant.

Finally, I interviewed Peter who discussed more in depth the relationship between all of the restaurant employees and therefore his reasons for over tipping those employees that work under him to make his job easier. Although he was not willing to explain the percentage breakdown, he did justify his tipping by saying that he was “a good tipper” because the more he is willing to pay his hostess and busser, the more they will be willing to do for him when the rushes come in. When asked about the kitchen staff, Peter confided that no one really tips the cooks or dishwashers because that is not part of restaurant tipping etiquette, but on a really busy night he might slip them a little something extra for their hard work. Peter explained it as, “If I scratch your back, you’ll scratch mine. If I give the kitchen and other employees a little extra from my tips, they will be more willing to help me, making me look like a better server, and I will end up making more anyways. It’s a circular relationship and none of us can survive in the restaurant without each other.” Peter reached the same conclusion that I did over restaurant workers and the ways in which they are tipped. If one position cannot survive without the others, why is it that only about half of restaurant employees are tipped for their hard work and contributions to the restaurant?

After speaking with servers about the ways in which they are willing to give up their tips, I decided to talk to a dishwasher whose lifestyle is predetermined by the fact that they earn no tips and do not earn a living wage. For example, Jorge is a dishwasher who speaks just enough English to survive in the kitchen of a small but expensive family owned restaurant. Do not let his title mislead you; he does much more than just wash the dishes. When there is not a pile of dirty dishes to be sprayed, scrubbed, and placed in the industrial washer, Jorge keeps busy with other tasks. These include slicing bread for bread plates, weighing and shaping the patties for burgers, slicing fruits and vegetables (without being slowed by the tears brought on from strong onions), cleaning the bathrooms, taking the trash out, and thawing meat. In his position, Jorge covers the duties of a dishwasher, janitor, and kitchen aid. However, his pay does not reflect this. Not only does he never earn tips, but also his hourly wage is only forty-five cents over the minimum wage. This is not a living wage and does not reflect how hard Jorge works everyday.

It is clear that Jorge does not earn a living wage because after working the entire day shift, Jorge does not have time to take the bus to his apartment, which is only fifteen minutes away by car, but over an hour by the public transportation option of the bus. Because he needs rest before he starts the grueling night shift that includes the weekend dinner rush, Jorge sleeps in the restaurant’s rat-infested crawlspace that is home to a mold sanctuary. He tries to nap by lining up a series of unused dining chairs with a moist and smelly blanket to cushion to wooden chairs. His job comes with only one perk: one free meal per shift. Although Jorge works with large machinery to slice meat and clean dishes, he receives no health care even though he is a fulltime employee because it is a small business and can avoid government healthcare regulations. Jorge sometimes makes sandwiches to take home to his family because the low wage he earns does not allow him the privilege to afford food for him or his family. If Jorge was to be paid for the three positions that he manages to work in one shift, or was tipped by the servers for all the services he provided for them, Jorge might be able to actually live of the money he earns, rather than need to pick up a second job in order to make ends meet. Although minimum wage may be enough to survive off of, it is in no means a living wage that someone could thrive off of. Minimum wage pays for Jorge's small apartment and meager amounts of food, but he cannot go to school, learn english, or get a better job and therefore thrive from the wage he earns and it is therefore NOT a living wage.

Jorge’s duties in the restaurant are absolutely essential for the restaurant to succeed. Still, servers and restaurant managers do not find the need to tip Jorge or raise his wages. The only reason that has ever been provided is that his jobs are at the bottom of the food chain and they are not glamorous or desired restaurant positions. Despite the importance of Jorge’s position, because he is at “the bottom of the food chain” and does not speak good English or come in close contact with restaurant customers, servers and restaurant managers find it acceptable to short him in pay and tips, making his wage an unlivable one. Although many issues regarding low wages and tipping processes have been conducted, none cover why dishwashers and other low profile restaurant jobs are not tipped and receive low wages, despite how hard they might work. From the research I conducted, it became clear that it is by no means normal to tip a dishwasher or kitchen aid. The tipping system as a whole needs to be revised so people are tipped based on how hard they work, rather than the price of the meal, and also so that this tip money will include the dishwasher and other restaurant positions who do not earn a living wage without additional tip money.

Overall, it became very clear that the current tipping system does not provide additional money for all those working and making a successful restaurant possible. In order to fix this, the way in which tips are distributed needs to be reformed in order to provide a more suitable wage for all restaurant workers.

 

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