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Social Justice at Your Local Restaurant

March 24, AD2014 18 Comments


So often in conservative circles, being diligent and thrifty with finances is spoken of in the most encouraging terms. We must be responsible with our money and watch every penny. Most often we are being prudent when doing so, but when might we actually be making a mistake with our thrift?

As Catholics, many of us urge a responsible social justice stance with respect for the poor, but are there times when we might (perhaps unintentionally) inflict our own injustices?

I admit that I didn’t really understand this issue until my youngest child got a job as a waitress. I am a notoriously bad cook, so when I was young I cleaned houses, but never worked in a restaurant. I assumed that minimum wage for food servers went up since my peers and I had entry level jobs. I was startled to learn that my daughter’s current minimum wage at the restaurant is $2.13 an hour.

When my husband was alive, he paid the tab at restaurants and he was not as thrifty as I was, which is a relief now that I understand how servers are paid.

It is technically illegal for restaurants to allow servers to make less than minimum wage, so they make up the difference by having them do “side work” (such as cleaning) which provides no tips. Plus their tips are taxed to the point where their paychecks are nearly nothing.

There are circumstances where servers are expected to share tips, or “tip out”, with other staff. So if that is compounded on top of very poor tips, they can be working for free or even paying for part of your dinner.

A person earning minimum wage only makes $15,080 per year which is below poverty if he or she has a child. If a server has you as a customer for an hour and you don’t tip at least $5 on your check then you are demanding that the server work for you at below poverty wages. If that server needs to pay a babysitter or put gas in a car and you short your server on a tip, then you have basically forced a poor person to work for you for nothing.

Mind you, the server is expected to be polite, knowledgeable, prompt and competent, and must respond to your requests without any commitment from you for a wage. Where else in society do people work so hard with only a hope that they might get paid? Even workers on commission don’t have to completely finish a task before learning whether they will get paid or not.

I am sure we each have a story of a rude or inept server in the course of our travels, but when we each go to work, even if we have a bad day or get grumpy with a coworker, for most of us, we can still count on getting paid. I propose that in most normal circumstances, as soon as you begin to make requests of the server, you have entered into a social contract that includes at least a minimum wage expectation for the person you are making demands of.

I recently had a conversation with one of the kindest people I ever met but she said that she and her husband never tip more than $3. I now understand the notice I often see on menus, “for large parties, an automatic 15% gratuity added.” If a server has three small tables, he or she can absorb being stiffed by one if the others are fair, but if a server devotes himself to one large group and gets an unfair tip, then he is cheated and exploited with no recourse.

I love the “tips for Jesus” person who leaves surprise $1000 tips, but that is an outlier in a field where it is much more likely that a person is left a tract about Jesus and no money to feed his or her kids. Imagine the sadness and desperation that must seize a struggling mom when she realizes that a demanding table of people she just served for an hour left poverty wages and a suggestion that she turns to God. Maybe she already did turn to God and was counting on your sense of fairness to make it all work.

So, my suggestion is this: if you cannot afford to leave a tip that at least brings the server’s wage to a fair, legal minimum, then go to a “non server” restaurant. If you are on the edge, drink water and skip desert to save enough for a decent tip for the server. To do otherwise is literally exploiting those who may not have any other options in our challenging economy.

Lastly, please, please don’t cross yourself and say a public prayer then not pay your server a fair wage. You might alienate a person from the Church who might otherwise find the true fullness of the Faith. Evangelize with your attitude, your love and a reasonable degree of fairness and generosity.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Tammy Ruiz Ziegler has been a Nurse for 30 years and spent most of her career in Neonatal Intensive Care. For 10 years, she has been a Perinatal Bereavement Coordinator - caring for women and families suffering miscarriage, stillbirth, neonatal death and SIDS. Part of her work involves assisting parents in preparing for births when the baby has received the diagnosis of a life limiting condition (often called "Perinatal Hospice"). In addition to her Nursing education, she studied (but did not become certified in) Clinical Pastoral Education at a Catholic Hospital in the midwest. She has been on EWTN and speaks regularly to Physicians & Nurses on the topic of perinatal loss care. Her work has been translated into Polish, Spanish, Czech, French, Italian & Japanese. Her career was both fragmented and enhanced by having 14 different jobs because of moves for her husband who was an active duty Officer in the USMC. She has 3 quasi-adult children and one super-cute grandchild. A convert to the Catholic Church, she was widowed after 26 years of marriage but recently married a man she met when they were both children.

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