Tips, screws & the minimum wage

Dec 3, 2003 at 12:00 am

Dear State Rep. Leon Drolet,

I’ve been a waitress for nine years, first to help pay my way through college, and now to survive in a downsized job market. I am writing you about a bill that is sitting with the Employment Relations, Training and Safety Committee which you chair.

House Bill 5068 would raise the food server minimum wage from $2.65 per hour to $4.65 per hour. As the Republican representative from Clinton Township, this may seem like small potatoes compared to balancing the state budget. But waiting tables isn’t always a job to get you through until commencement. Some of us work in restaurants to buy clothes for our kids and to put a roof over our family’s heads. The work is hard, dirty, sometimes hazardous to our health — but we do it all the same.

I know what you’re thinking — all those tips make up for the low wage. But, believe me, for most of us an extra $2 an hour might cover health insurance (which many of us aren’t provided with) or a week’s groceries.

When I spoke with state Rep. Kenneth Daniels, D-Detroit, originator and co-sponsor of the bill, it was clear that even a sympathetic legislator doesn’t have much insight into the food-serving profession. I gave him a rundown of how much we usually make; how we divvy up tips among servers, busboys and bartenders; how we are taxed, and so on. The more I explained, the more I wondered, “What else don’t you know?” Which led to this letter to you and the other legislators who’ll decide my fate — or at least my paycheck.

I’d like you all to work a shift with me and my fellow food servers to see what it’s like for your income to depend on the undependable generosity of strangers. That’s not likely, I realize, but at least you can learn what our working lives are like, our daily tribulations, our lingo. For one thing, Rep. Drolet, do you know what it’s like to be stiffed?


The stiff

There are two types of stiffing that occur regularly, and no, this isn’t the beginning of a dirty joke. There’s the customer who waits for the server to turn away and then jets, leaving an unpaid bill. Sneaky? Yes. And sometimes an angry manager might make the server cover that unpaid bill out of their own pocket. Believe me, at $2.65 per hour it takes a few hours to make up for the cheapest meals, let alone for the lost tips.

There’s also the customer who pays their bill, but doesn’t tip. Disheartening? Yes. I’m sure there are reasons why someone might justify that, but in the end the server is left short. It may not happen often, but it’s rough when it does.

Seven-course screw-over

This is when a gluttonous customer orders nearly everything on the menu. Generally, this customer will also need at least five or six refills on their drink, snapping their fingers with each demand. In my experience, a lot of the customers who order like this will leave about 10 percent; this is the screw-over.

The verbal tip

When a customer says, “Don’t worry, I’m a big tipper,” or “Make sure I get the bill. I tip better,” this usually translates to “Expect 15 percent or less.” People who tip well don’t usually brag about it. There are also less-offensive instances when a server works his or her ass off and the customer tells them how wonderful the service was, while personally handing them $2. Servers know that not everyone has a lot of money, so their feelings might not get hurt under these circumstances, but their pocketbook still feels the pain.

Scripture tip

This is one of the most insulting experiences, which is generally reserved for us “sinners” who work Sundays. This is when a server receives a pamphlet of Bible excerpts and a crisp $1 bill. I understand spreading the good word — I also understand sharing the wealth. I knew a girl who gave a Scripture tip back to a customer once and said, “God doesn’t pay my bills.” Her penance for breaking the golden restaurant rule of “the customer is always right”? She got fired.


These are just some of the ways servers get hosed. Diners will stiff us, but I’d like to see them try that with the IRS. While we are on the subject of taxes, don’t you realize that if you raise our wages it will mean more tax dollars in the state’s pocket? Restaurateurs do pay payroll taxes, and servers do pay taxes on their tips.

One possible hindrance to this bill is the lobbying power of the Michigan Restaurant Association, which adamantly opposes the legislation. I spoke with Krysten Sorensen, a spokeswoman for the organization, who called the raise a “devil’s increase” that would mean higher prices for the customer. Sorensen also said that the raise sounds like a good idea, but would be very bad for businesses.

The MRA represents 4,000 Michigan restaurants. Food servers do not have anyone representing them, no union, no organization — and we definitely have no lobbying power. So, I ask you and your colleagues to take an honest look at this proposed legislation. Hold a hearing and let us come to Lansing and answer your questions. Listen to us as well as the other side’s lobbyists.

And in the meantime, I trust that you and the other committee members won’t forget to tip.


Gina Marie Pasfield

Gina Marie Pasfield is a working waitress and a Metro Times editorial intern. E-mail [email protected]