Opinion

Charles: How about a living wage?

Imagine you worked at a job where you never knew how much you would make, day to day, week to week, month to month, or year to year. Every day you pretty much started at ground zero, and depended on hundreds of people to be your boss, the ones who determined your feast — or famine.

Well, if you’re a server in the restaurant business in many places in this country, this is your reality. You have to depend, as Blanche duBois famously said, “on the kindness of strangers.”

This was first brought home to me a few years ago when I had a friend who had three part time jobs in order to make ends meet and raise her family. One job was as a part time church secretary, another as a home health aide, and the third was as a waitress in a small restaurant. She would talk about having worked several hours at the restaurant and bringing home only about $20 in tips. She struggled all the time to make ends meet. The restaurant job was her most labor intensive and time-consuming, and paid the least.

I got a closer look at the inequities of our current tipping system because one of the two jobs my college-student daughter worked this summer was as a server at a pub/restaurant. She had good days — $150 in tips — and bad days — $26. It doesn’t all even out when you’re working a seven-hour shift. Fortunately the other job paid a hair above minimum wage. Both job situations are life lessons for her: dealing with the public, dealing with coworkers, and being held accountable for bad service — sometimes unfairly — because there wasn’t enough waitstaff or kitchen help to accommodate a full restaurant. She also learned to have much more empathy for servers. There are reasons restaurant workers are among the more generous tippers.

But this isn’t really about my daughter, or even other students who are servers as they work their way through school. If things work out for them, they will learn to appreciate and value this labor as they head toward myriad careers (maybe even toward ownership or management in those restaurants).

This is about the reality that many servers, a great majority of them women, have to feed their families and pay their bills while depending on the generosity and kindness of strangers.

All of this is to say: Can we finally get rid of this outmoded idea of service workers having to depend on their customers for a living wage?

I’m not anti-tipping. I like to tip, and I tend to be generous, especially for good service. But I don’t believe it’s fair that wait staff are made to accept as little as $2.13 an hour ($3.75 in Massachusetts) because the employers can consider tips as part of the staff’s wages. The way this works, if the employee’s cash wages and tips combined are less than $7.25 an hour, the employer is legally obligated to pay the employee the difference. But once taxes are taken out for what you should be making, that paycheck is minuscule. Some servers end up with paychecks that add up to zero. And studies have shown up to 84 percent of employers violate that pact.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, ($11 in Massachusetts), which hardly constitutes a living wage here, or in most parts of the country.

Restaurant owners argue that paying even minimum wage makes it harder for them because of the razor-thin profit margins they struggle with daily. If they pay their staff more, they would have to charge their patrons more.

Well, if you are already charging, say, $16 for a hamburger (about what many medium level restaurants charge) kicking it up a couple of bucks so your wait staff isn’t leaving one job and going off to job number two, or three, because they got stiffed with a dine and dash (wait staff pays); or someone thought they should only tip a dollar or two because you didn’t fill their water quickly enough; or the cooks forgot the fries with the last order, so they got no tip at all, won’t break the bank for most diners.

And just an aside, most fast food places and franchise coffee shops pay minimum wage. Yeah, I know Starbucks is expensive, Dunkin’ less so, but the change you may or may not choose to dump in the tip jar isn’t as much of a difference in whether they have food or heat that month that it might be on $3.75 an hour for a seven- or eight-hour shift.

Not all states allow employers to take a tip credit. They pay minimum wage, sometimes even more. And yet restaurants manage to survive in all those states. In fact, tipping is even higher in those states where the servers get a true minimum wage, or better.

So it can be done. Tipping in restaurants is a way for us to keep a segment of our population in a state of servitude and income underclass. We say there isn’t a caste system here — America is the land of opportunity where everyone can get a fair shake — but having someone work for less than minimum wage, and taxing them as if they are getting that wage because tips “should” make up the difference, doesn’t seem fair to me.

And other tip recipients aren’t necessarily being taxed on that income, you know. Your manicurist, the person who cuts your hair, the taxi driver, the hotel worker who cleans your room, etc. — think the IRS is counting on them being tipped and applying what they owe the same way?

We are talking about heading to a $15 minimum wage here in Massachusetts. And yes, I would still tip even if that $16 burger went up two or three dollars. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone making a decent wage. And when that server has spent the last seven hours on her or his feet, only to get stiffed by a table or two of diners — at least that server won’t come out on the short end of the stick.

If nothing else, they can do their job without the rent money depending on the kindness of strangers.

Cheryl Charles can be reached at [email protected]

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