20 Is The New 15

April 4, 2008 at 1:54 am 2 comments

Somewhere in the mid 1990’s Playboy Magazine suggested that 15% was no longer an adequate tip for a server at a restaurant.

For decades the US minimum wage for servers was always one half of the minimum for workers in any other industry. Long ago lobbyist for the chain restaurants convinced (which is political jargon for “bribed”) Congress into believing this was fair and equitable. But at least servers got a raise every time everyone else did, even if it was just enough to pay their tax burden. In the changes to the minimum wage law of 1996 it was rewritten that the server minimum wage was now a set dollar amount, $2.13 an hour, which was the rate the 50% rule had set it as after the wage change in 1991 (50% of the then $4.25 rate). Since restaurant prices have hardly budged in the last twenty years, especially compared to the increases in homes, gas, and cars, Playboy had determined that this was the only way this profession would ever receive another raise.

Regardless of what your moral views are to the pictorial content of Playboy, no one can argue the fact that no other periodical in history has captured the mood of America better than Hefs’ creation. It is now 2008, some seventeen years since the 50% rule was eliminated from the wage law and the federal minimum wage for servers is still $2.13. In 1991 that hourly wage would just cover a server’s tax burden and leave them a few bucks for a tank of gas as well. Today the average full time (aka non-student) server has to pay $300 every April 15th because their hourly pay does not cover their tax burden. While the hourly wage has not risen for severs in nearly two decades, the taxed percentage of “tipped” income has risen. In addition, most corporate restaurant chains take cash from a servers tips to pay other hourly employees so that they can rule them as “tip earners” as well and therefore not have to pay them a fair wage either.

The result is that a server working at O’Apple Tuesday’s Fern Bar in 1991 actually made more money than one working there today.  Current servers also do twice as much work as the ’91 servers. As it turns out Playboy was right. The only way people in this profession would ever receive another raise is if the standard tip went from 15% to 20%. For years I was on the fence on this subject. My belief was always that 15% had been the norm for so long that people who left that amount were not cheap, just misinformed. Today if you only tip 15% you are not a good tipper. If you tip 10% you are a thief.

In general I would believe that it is unfair for the customer to have to personally pay a server’s salary, but folks this corruption of the law exists because we as voters do not demand that our lawmakers fix it. So until everyone sends a message to Washington that these Draconian conditions must change, then it will remain the tax payer’s obligation to see to it that server’s get better pay. In other words tip 20%, cheapskate.

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Stuart Reb Donald

Stuart is a celebrity chef and award winning food writer. Donald performs live cooking demonstrations and penned the cookbook Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor."

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