By ALEXANDRA SEMENOVA
Gzim Dusevic likens his job to prostitution.
“People disrespect you for an hour and then pay you off for it when the bill comes,” the veteran waiter said. “Sorry for my language but sometimes I feel like a whore.”
Dusevic has been working as a server in New York City for about 20 years, having been employed at several fine dining restaurants in Manhattan during his career. He complained that working for tips is often frustrating: customers order him around and compensate for it with cash. Even when the service is exceptional, restaurant-goers sometimes evade the suggested gratuity when their bill comes, he said. “They forget that we’re servers, not servants.”
But Dusevic has no other choice than to adhere to the requests of such customers because his income depends on them.
On a busy day, tip earnings may significantly boost the income of restaurant workers, and some may argue that for this reason, the restaurant business offers great rewards to its servers. But when an employee’s salary is left in the hands of capricious customers, to have a salary primarily based on tip earnings creates a system of institutional exploitation that provides only the illusion of guaranteed pay.
Although gratuity payments may collectively increase the tip pool amount – the system in which waitstaff accumulate all their service earnings to then be divided evenly among them – server incomes become dependent on customers. That makes for an inconsistent salary and causes an adverse customer-employee dynamic since the relationship between tipping behavior and service quality is largely insignificant.
Waitstaff, busboys and bartenders rely on busy lunch hours to accumulate their tip earnings. Tipped food service workers have a $5 minimum hourly wage with a $2.25 maximum hourly tip credit, according to U.S. Department of Labor regulations. A tip credit or tip allowance is the amount of tips earned by an employee that the law allows the employer to take as a credit against the minimum wage requirements for that industry. Therefore, employers are only required to pay a tipped employee $2.13 per hour in direct wages, as long as that amount, when combined with tips, equals at least the federal minimum wage of $8.75 per hour.
Some customers are culturally inclined to tip poorly or not at all. While it’s standard to tip at least 15 to 20 percent in the United States after dining at a restaurant, in some countries it is commonplace to tip 5 percent, and in other countries, tips are not expected at all, according to a comparison of tipping etiquette data on the travel research site Wanderbat.com. Consequently, tourists from these countries, who often visit fine dining restaurants during their stay in New York City, often fail to provide adequate gratuities to their servers.
Some restaurant-goers may simply be stingy; and others may use the server’s race, gender or sexual orientation as determinants of how to tip their server, creating an inequitable working environment. Conversely, an employee whose salary is ultimately determined by how well customers tip will naturally focus more on predicted earnings than on doing the job well for all customers. Some servers will try to profile stingy tippers and may provide less than satisfactory service as a result.
Customer attitude is not the only determinant. The sporadic nature of restaurant visits affects employee salaries as well. Depending on the infrastructure of the restaurant – whether it provides outside seating or whether it is well-heated or not – some venues are busier in the spring and summer seasons and others in the fall and winter seasons. Another waiter, Mario Passante, said that tip pool dependence calls for patchy work schedules among waiters. They receive different schedules every week based on estimates of expected customers, and even with this arbitrariness, Passante said that he often shows up to work and is sent home because there are few reservations when there are too many servers on the floor.
That dependency on becomes problematic for tipped employee earnings.
“Tipping is not compelled or enforced,” said Clyve Lagerquist, who has worked as a bartender for about eight years. He said that tipping is not an incentive to waiters to provide above average service but rather a threat to maintain it – without any guarantee that high-quality work will lead to a greater tip. Although tipping is a social norm, there is no rule against a customer demanding immediate service and attention and providing no tip whatsoever, according to Lagerquist.
The tipping system affects not only the waitstaff-customer relationship, but also the relationship between employee and employer, and front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house employees. In 2009, Sparks Steakhouse, a Midtown East restaurant located at 210 E. 47th St., was sued by its employees, who settled the suit for $3.15 million to be divided among 200 current and former workers, according to court documents.
Employees who were working in the kitchen at the Manhattan steakhouse were being paid out of the tip pool, according to Lou Pechman, the labor lawyer who filed and won the suit. “A pure tip pool means only people who are directly serving customers are entitled to sharing the tips.”
Pechman specializes in labor laws, particularly in New York City restaurants, but deals with nationwide cases as well. According to his website, waiterpay.com, which Pechman created to help guide restaurant employees through complicated labor laws, management withholding tips, payment of hourly wages, and overtime pay are some of the major violations by restaurant owners.
Restricting the tip pool earnings solely to dining room employees causes a problem of its own, however. While waiters can enjoy increased salaries after a busy night, kitchen employees often work hard for a fixed income that doesn’t rise even when a busy night requires them to work to increase their productivity. It has long been noted that a prominent wage gap exists between workers in the front of the restaurant and the back.
Danny Meyer, a New York City restaurateur and owner of the Union Square Hospitality Group, proposed the idea of increasing menu prices, eliminating the tipping system, and providing waitstaff with fixed salaries to eliminate the disparity between cook and server earnings.
“There’s a feeling among a lot of owners of restaurants that waiters are making too much and cooks and people in the kitchen are not making enough,” Pechman said. “I think what Danny Meyer is trying to do is redistribute the wealth.”
Though Pechman said the idea may work to reduce inequity, the success of the plan would depend primarily on how much the fixed salary actually is. “Will a waiter be happier with a flat wage than a tip minimum wage and tips from customers? I guess time will tell,” Pechman said. “If they’re making more money and it’s regular, that would be a great development.”
Meyer’s plan seeks to provide employees with consistent incomes when there is less foot traffic.
Justin Swartz, a wage lawyer and partner at Outten & Golden LLP, which represents employees in wage cases, said that if a small additional fee is added to menu prices instead of a suggested gratuity rate, a salary equal or close to what servers earn based off tips can be provided for the restaurant’s employees. “The fee should be called something like an administrative charge or just included into entree prices,” he said.
“It’s the same everywhere, said Teodora Cupac, who has worked as a bartender at two locations, both in a Brooklyn college bar and Manhattan restaurant. She described one evening working at the Brooklyn bar when she earned about $700 single-handedly while her coworkers “did nothing.” Shewas forced to pool the money, going home with less than $100 that night after it was split.
In the other location, Cupac worked during the weekend shifts that other bartenders refused to take on: 12 hours on Saturdays, and 12 hours on Sundays. She said that much of the business in the restaurant was from regular customers, who usually came to the bar only during weekdays either for lunch or happy hour after work and that very few people sat at the bar on weekends.
Cupac is expected not only to tend to those sitting at the bar, but to pour drinks for everyone in the restaurant, whether making a mixed drink or pouring an iced tea, based on the requests of the servers. However, she only receives 7 percent of tip pool earnings on top of her $5-per-hour salary. Any tips at the bar belong to her, but since so few people eat at the bar on weekends her income is quite low. On average she earns about $230 per weekend, which divided by her 24-hours’ worth of work is $9.58, slightly higher than the minimum wage of $8.75. But for Cupac, who is also a full-time college student, “slightly higher than minimum wage” is not enough for working 24 hours in two days.
Trinidad Torres, who has been working as a server for about five years, believes that a fixed-salary system would work. Prior to working in the restaurant business in New York City, Torres studied in Spain where he worked as a server under a fixed salary to pay for his studies and housing. Torres said it was significantly better because there was no element of uncertainty; waiters would have a predicable paycheck and get paid whether the restaurant was busy or not and independent of a customer’s temperament. “I make just enough money to go to happy hour,” said Torres, who complained that Friday lunch shifts are very slow.