Social Justice at Your Local Restaurant



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.

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest

18 thoughts on “Social Justice at Your Local Restaurant”

  1. One thing that my husband and I want to try to do is start handing an extra $5 to someone handing us our fast food. These are people working very hard for little money and its a good way to help.
    That being said, because the minimum wage is a random number set by the government and was originally designed to be a training wage, I have no problem tipping according to service. This is simply part of the training

    1. I think this is very generous of you, but be careful. Many fast food places do pay their employees minimum wage, and a few discourage or even forbid their employees from accepting tips. Once, when I was a teenager, I faced discipline when a kindly elderly gentleman insisted I keep the change from his purchase. I am still grateful for his thoughtfulness but it did make for an awkward situation. It was a rare situation, though (much more common was people insisting they’d given me $20 bills instead of $10s. I fell for it exactly once, and then learned to keep the money given to me on top of the till until I’d made change.)

  2. Amen! Tammy I think you are right on target. We have too many of what are known as the working poor in our country. Being a good Christian witness means having a good attitude, being generous, and caring about others. Caring in this case means leaving a good tip.

  3. As a former server, I would have been happy with 15% every time, which
    is still the norm in America. Also, I’d be interested to know how much
    of the tip a waiter has to claim for taxes at the end of the day these days. It
    used to be only 8% of gross receipts. Thus, if they receive the normal
    15%, 7% is untaxable, which is good because a little of that is shared with
    the support staff. Except for babysitters, not many folks get tax free pay. (Obviously the honesty in reporting tips is a whole nother Catholic issue.)

    I would also recommend that every citizen
    work a serving job to see what it’s like to be in those shoes. Catholics
    in particular should work these jobs, at least for awhile! We are
    called to serve others, and it teaches patience, love, and forgiveness,
    while enduring frustration and disappointment of our fellow man. If
    more were willing to serve, they’d know how to tip and how to be a good
    customer (!).

    I agree with the author about how it
    evangelizes. I would get salt-of-the-earth blue collar men who would
    order coffee for 95 cents and leave a dollar tip. Then, I would get
    people after service at the Bible church next door who would sit for
    hours and leave only a Bible verse written on a napkin. It had nothing
    to do with my pleasantness or performance. It had to do with their
    generosity. I learned alot from those experiences. Knowing how it
    feels to be stiffed or undertipped, one of my tricks is to take a few extra small bills
    with me if a friend on a budget is taking me to lunch. That way, I can
    stealthily supplement the tip when they aren’t looking, if my friend
    insists on paying the tip.

    I suppose where I disagree with the
    article is in our individual responsibility to ensure waiters at cheaper food establishments make
    minimum wage. Servers accept the jobs on the terms that some days will
    mean more pay, and some days will mean less pay. They also know that
    from 2 to 3 o’clock very few people eat, so if they work that shift, they can
    wait for Catholics to drop by and throw $9 through the front door at each of
    them. 🙂 I’m teasing. But, that is, by extension, the next logical
    step in “social justice” as presented. To the point of the article, waiters and waitresses typically
    have more than one table at a time, and may spend only 10-15 minutes of
    work for my table. Therefore, it is not, in my conscience, incumbent
    on me to OVER-tip the waiter or waitress, independent of my satisfaction
    with their service, as if they did nothing but work for my table for an
    entire hour.

    Finally, we simply CANNOT remove the worker from his or her own responsibility for their own pay. Waiting tables is a great starter job, and if you work the good shifts, can provide an independent living. Then, once one gains the experience needed to work in a nice restaurant, they can make far more than many recent college-graduates working in their fields of study, but with none of the student loans to repay. But they have to work hard, be good, and leave employment for greener pastures when they can’t make ends meet, and can’t reduce their spending on those “ends.”

    The way I’d promote this idea is not via social justice, but love. As a customer, I always say: That extra dollar means more to them than it does to me.

    1. Thank you, you added some really helpful and thought provoking ideas to the mix.

      I see your point that its not necessarily our moral obligation to significantly overtip in all situations that werent of our making in the first place, but I hope that I sparked an opportunity for reflection in the minds of chronic under-tippers.

      You make a good point that blanket overtipping might remove personal responsibility from a server to strive, but my daughter said that her experience has been that some folks will chronically undertip no matter how hard she works and pleasant she is.

      You make a good point that there is a lot to be learned form doing a job like this…when she has come home from a really hard shift and feels deflated, we talk about the things she has learned about people from doing this job and how much it will help her in her future. The equivalents in my life were working as a house cleaner and an aide in the Nursing Home section of a hospital…service is very helpful in forming us well.

  4. Explain the math, please. If your server has you for an hour and you don’t pay at least $5 tip then the server is working for less than poverty level right? So the server is only serving one table for an hour? Not likely. How do you account for serving say 4 tables in an hour, then each paying a $5 tip works out to $20/hour or annualized to $41,600 assuming 2080 hours (which is probably high but you have to annualize using a real number) Obviously servers don’t make that much which is why a better explanation is needed. Why is it the customers responsibility to pay a living wage? I agree that if you think servers aren’t paid fairly then don’t go to restaurants. Of course, servers will lose their jobs completely if enough people go that route. Where will your entry level worker daughter get a job if that happens?

    1. Even though it is illegal in some places…many restaurants still pay servers the $2 minimum while they clean and stock the restaurant…they work for this reduced rate just to be in the position to be able to make tips when they have tables. So if they make $20/hr when it is busy and $2/hr when it is not and get taxed on what tips they “should” get then even then it seems to you that they are raking it in, they may very well just be making minimum wage.

      After I submitted this column, my daughter had a really busy day where she had to apply herself intensely to get herself to work on time. She arrived when her supervisor had told her to be there. There were no customers to seat at the moment and her boss forbade her to clock in until a customer arrived, so she was already a half hour in the red before her first task.

      Those of us who work in companies where unfair labor practices are uncommon might think its easy to insist on fairness when you are being obviously cheated or exploited by a supervisor or employer, but entry level workers are not often in a place of power where they can fight for their rights. It has been done but its quite difficult.

    2. The one nice thing about being a server is that, for the most part, your rewards ARE performance based.

      What’s a “living wage” and who should be responsible for subsidizing it, if not customers?

    1. You can still be Catholic and be as mean and cheap as you like but we generally do see the goodness in being fair and the Bible says that a worker is worth their wage.

      So, I would word it differently, but yes

      I would encourage you to consider the fact that if you don’t pay them what is required to earn minimum wage then you haven’t paid what is necessary to make demands on them. If you honestly didn’t know that they made $2/hr I could easily see a person thinking “the service was only fair, they don’t deserve extra on top of what the restaurant pays them” but now that you KNOW that they are making basically nothing then could you really be comfortable knowing that they literally SERVED you for nothing?

      If you have requested, insisted or demanded anything then you have entered a social contract with that person doing a service in exchange for a fee. If they comply (even if imperfectly) then I argue that you are morally obligated to pay them. If they do stuff for you and you refuse to tip then you have forced a poor person to work for you for free.

      I can imagine that people might come up with wild examples of never getting food etc ..Im not talking about servers who display extreme refusal to do their work in a marginally acceptable fashion, Im talking about basically normal circumstances.

      Also, leaving bad tips because the food isnt cooked faster is not fair…the server can advocate to some degree, but isnt the person cooking the food.

    2. Well, bother, I made a nice long response that seems to have been lost. I’ll try to recreate it, but shorter.

      You’re required to act with love of your neighbor, and we are also to pursue justice– to render what is due. Someone who works should get the benefit of their labor.

      in Mrs. Ruiz’s prudential judgement, that means making sure that they get minimum wage.

      Someone else’s, it could mean not going to anyplace that doesn’t meet their standard for employment, working to change the laws so that tips are not taxed, or even doing away with minimum wage laws entirely to better promote a profit sharing model.

      I know I won’t go anyplace that I know forces the pooling of tips, and if I find out they do so I’ll put a small tip on the credit card sheet, then put money under a dish on the table. A worker should be able to keep her wages; I’d no sooner support pooling of tips than pooling of wages for redistribution among the staff.

      Our household uses the classic tipping model– 5% minimum, 10 for average, 15 for good, rounding up to the nearest dollar and rounding up to the nearest bill (3 becomes 5, 11 becomes 15) from there if they were outstanding, with additional for things like “kid dumped drink in middle of table” or even just “we have three young kids, sorry for the crumbs.”

      We don’t eat at places that are nice enough to hit the “fancy” tipping scale. (It has to do with how much individual time and attention the server puts into each table. If the wine list isn’t on the same page as “amusingly” named cocktails or domestic beers on tap, you’re probably in it.)

    3. I think that they should get AT LEAST minimum wage. Minimum wage really is just a starting point but as it is not a real living wage I hope that most of us would be willing to be a little more generous than that.

      I just googled “how much should I tip?” and all the results I read said that the norms are 10/15/20+ %, not 5/10/15 % as you stated.

      If you were her first or last table in an evening and noone else was there and you and your kids ate a $50 meal you would pay her 10% if she were average (lets say its the end of a long day and she is tired) , So she would get $5 from you and $2.1 from the restaurant to total $7.10 which is just below minimum wage. If there were 2 tables she could pocket $12 but she still ass to stay after you are gone to clean, so some of that is gone.

      I wont thump you over the head…that does no good…sometimes the best you get from writing is to encourage thought about stuff. No matter how hard you try, I bet this comes to mind the next time you go out and I want you to imagine that your kids aren’t the ones spilling orange soda, your kid is the bringing it.

    4. As I said, your prudential judgement is your own, and quite defensible.

      I am not going to argue a specific hypothetical when I already said all I need to: a Catholic is to act in accordance with what, in their judgment, is in keeping with loving their neighbor and promotes justice.

      I have seen discussions of the “normal” amount that assert that 25% is a minimum for dinner at a Denny’s, to general agreement; that suggests a feed-back loop of people asserting a higher and higher amount without it carrying through to the actual establishments. I’ll stick with Emily Post’s as of about 2000, and specific situations;

      There are very many types of jobs that do not make minimum wage; the main difference between them and waitstaff is that waiters have a chance to make up the difference in tips.

      Incidentally, not all restaurants either cheat their employees as you have described– paying “tipped” wages for non-tipped jobs– nor pay everyone the least amount possible. Only 13% of “service” jobs that pay hourly, in fact. And 2% of full time workers are at or below federal minimum wage, they are overwhelmingly young and single. The vast majority of the funding to push raising the minimum wage is from those whose contracts base their pay off of multiples of it, rather than those who are gaining work experience on their way up.

    5. Thank you for acknowledging that my original argument is defensible.

      I just used the term “gaining work experience on their way up” phrase to describe working for minimum wage to my 2 children who both make minimum wage and I’m working to peel them off the ceiling. One of them is a 25 year old parent who has almost 4 years of college. My daughter said that most of her fellow servers are parents and few see themselves as “on the way up”. Some of these folks are genuinely impoverished for the long term they have taken showers at my house during times of homelessness and wear our cast-off eyeglasses.

      If you had asked me (before my daughter started this job) how much servers made as a base salary I would have guessed between $4.50 and $6 and I considered my late husband an over-tipper. I figured if I didn’t understand this well then maybe others didn’t know this either and I hoped to inform so that people would understand the real impact of their decisions. Some folks may think they are being “responsibly thrifty” saving a buck or two leaving a small tip when doing so might inflict an unintended injustice on a (possibly) very poor person.

  5. Excellent point on servers.

    As a former server, I always leave 20% minimum whenever I eat out. Even if the server screwed up.

    I’m not trying to boast or suggesting that everyone should do this, I just figure that I’m making up for somebody else that doesn’t tip well as a rule. My MiL and her entire family have dedicated their lives to charity, yet espouse one of the attitudes that you mention above. I can’t help but feel embarrassed when she takes us out to eat, especially when the waitstaff is doing a bang-up job to help give us a great experience.

    I dislike the term ‘social justice,’ as I feel it is too often used as an umbrella by bureaucrats to justify whatever special interest legislation helps get them elected.

    But this example provides perfect context for what true ‘social justice’ should look like and how it can come about through individual behavior, IMHO.

    1. 20% minimum, huh? Even if the server “screwed up”?

      Sorry. Don’t see this as an issue remotely attributable to justice.

      If a server does the minimum ie gets my order right, gets my food to me in reasonable shape as I ordered, keeps my ice tea filled AND asks if my meal is “ok”, then they are in store for a 15%.

      Why should I subsidize poor performance? How will the wait staff AND restaurant learn about their poor service if I don’t motivate them to improve or reward them accordingly if their service has been outstanding. Get that? Outstanding.

    2. I’m not advocating rewarding people for doing a bad job, but depending on the type of place, 15% may not bring them up to minimum wage. My gentleman companion and I eat out a lot but neither of us drink alcohol or soda so our tabs are often so low that a 15-20% tip may not be enough to bring them up to minimum wage.

      He had not historically been a generous tipper but I am trying to cultivate a new generosity in him. It must be working because he told me recently that he almost cancelled his cleaning lady one day and didn’t because he knew I would tell him that she needed the money to live.

      My true confession is that I have memories of leaving marginal tips and they haunt me now. If I could go back in time and fix it I would.

  6. Pingback: New Confirmation Program Targeting Catholic Youth -

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: