Thursday, October 04, 2007

Wooden Nickels

On September 26, there was a presidential debate in the town of Hanover, NH. Unlike the relatively subdued event at St. Anselms College in June, this was a full fledged circus. Dartmouth College is right in the middle of downtown Hanover, and everyone was there, including me. The reporting of the debate was just about what one might expect it to be. There were other stories to report on, however, and sadly they received almost no attention.

A group of young African American Dartmouth students held banners in front of the auditorium where the debate was to take place, calling on the media to pay more attention to the events in Jena, Louisiana. They stood quietly, watching Chris Matthews across the street, as he interviewed Joe Biden, and ignored them completely. They told me that of all the media outlets present, only NBC had spoken with them.

Also ignored was the rally/protest held by SEIU in solidarity with the tipped employees of the Hanover Inn. In 2004 the workers at the Hanover Inn voted to gain collective bargaining rights. The staff is represented by SEIU Local 560.The Hanover Inn is one of the only union hotels in the state. One aspect of the 2005 contract that is still under negotiation is compensation for tipped employees while on vacation time, sick days, personal days, and retirement. The wait staff at the Hanover Inn are paid $3.50 an hour for their vacation days, and that’s also how their pensions are configured – at a rate below minimum wage. In other words, a loyal employee who stays for years and reaches retirement gets a stick in the eye when it comes to their pension.

Wait staff have long been on the short end of the financial stick. Whenever talk turns to increasing the minimum wage, the restaurant industry lobbyists come out of the woodwork to fight any suggestion that tipped employees should receive an increase in their already below minimum hourly wage. Historically, the tipped worker minimum wage was half of whatever the national minimum wage was. In 1996, tipped workers minimum wage was permanently frozen at $2.13. Next time you pick up that pitiable paycheck, be sure to thank the Republican controlled legislature of 1996. Housing costs, medical costs, and transportation costs have continued to increase – but not the wages of tipped workers. This forces them to rely almost completely on tips to make ends meet. As anyone who has ever been a tipped employee knows – there ain’t no guarantees. There are never any guarantees about tips. One can spend hours giving perfect service, only to get stiffed by a patron. On a slow night, a waitperson might be sent home. Some customers are offended by the idea of tipping, and choose to take their frustration with the system out on the wait people. Bureau of Labor statistics show that the average waiter/waitress in the US makes just over $17,000 a year, including tips. That is not enough to support a family on, never mind save for retirement.

The US has a very provincial attitude about waiters – and let me point out that I am using the term waiter as a generic term to cover men and women. We don’t call female teachers teacheresses or teacherettes, we don’t call female police officers copettes, so we needn’t use the sexist diminutive waitress, either. In many European countries the job of waiter is an honorable one, a job that may be handed down from within a family. In the US, there are some widely held beliefs about waiters – mostly that they are dumb. If they were smart, they’d get better paying jobs. Waiting on tables requires memory, discretion, mind reading, and good organizational skills – hardly a job for the stupid. There are people waiting on tables in this area who have advanced degrees – and no place to use them. A waiter job can be a real gift to a single mother, who can manage to arrange a schedule that is flexible and workable so that she has time with her kids. That doesn’t mean that she should be paid substandard wages, or receive substandard retirement. People from other countries are horrified by our tipped employee system. I’d love to see a national discussion on changing it – but the restaurant lobby will have screaming hysterics at the mere thought of it. I’d also love to see more restaurants and hotels unionize. Our once proud manufacturing economy has been allowed to flee overseas, leaving us with increasing numbers of low paying service jobs. The service sector should be organizing, organizing to make sure they don’t continue to get the proverbial wooden nickel.

Thirty-one states have established a minimum wage for tipped employees that his higher than $2.13 an hour. Seven states require tipped employees to be paid full minimum wage. None of these states have found that paying a fair wage has hurt their business. The Hanover Inn pays more than the $2.13, which is certainly a good start – but sick leave and retirement should be calculated in a way that helps workers. Having a stable staff is an asset to any hotel or restaurant. Our working families deserve better than this.

“A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person.” Dave Barry

1 comment:

Narsbars said...

I now make four or five times what some wait staff workers earn and I get benefits for my technical skills.
I tried bussing tables once and I did not have the speed, organization or the skills to be allowed in public.
Since then I have been a good tipper.
Thank you for bringing their plight to life so clearly.