“Always be extra nice to nurses and waitresses, because they take care of you when you’re at your worst: either sick or hungry,” is what my mom always said. The gender neutral term of “server” hadn’t been coined to replace waitress when Marge was imparting her wisdom to me. With her words always close to my head and heart, I married a nurse and like to think I tip the waiters and waitresses well.
Leaving a tip for a server is second nature to most Americans, anything from 8 percent to 20 percent and everything in between. A local politician, Jim McNeil, used to hand out tip cards to help restaurant patrons. The card had all the possible gratuity computations printed out so a diner could leave the appropriate amount for the cost of the meal. It was handy, but it all seemed too precise and stingy figuring out the tip to the penny. Hopefully there are generous tippers who make up for the skinflints and stiffs who leave little or nothing for the waiters and waitresses. And we shouldn’t forget most bartenders, because they too earn more on tips than they do on wages.
But all of this tipping courtesy may come to an end soon if Governor Cuomo gets his way with the 2018 state budget. During the Albany budget negotiation process, the big money items usually take care of themselves; things like Transportation Department expenses and building construction. But it’s the little pet projects that cause the most concessions, compromises and hand wringing behind the scenes. Past non-budgetary items such as same-sex marriage and increasing the age of juvenile criminality were considered budgetary items tied into the Big Ugly.
This year one of the Governor’s pet projects is ending the separate minimum wage for “Tipped Service Workers”. He says this levels the playing field for all food service workers – cooks, table bussers and wait staff – thus the end of customers tipping at the end of a meal. It all sounds good until the wait staff realizes they are taking a drastic cut in hourly pay––according to those I spoke with. It also means wait staff may have to work more hours to earn the same sized paycheck. That’s tough on those paying for child care or those who enjoy the flexible work schedule.
Let’s imagine the Governor gets his way and tipping ends and now all waiters and waitresses at restaurants get paid the same. You and your family enter a restaurant and read on the menu "no need to tip." The next thing you notice on the menu is meal prices are more expensive. Now you realize your server is going to make the same amount of money regardless of how well they treat you or how efficient or nice they are. Some wait staff would make efforts to take care of you; some of them wouldn’t care because they get the same pay after you settle the bill.
The restaurant business is already run on a very tight margin of profit versus expenses. It is also a very competitive and risky business, particularly in the upstate New York fragile economic climate. Increasing wages is going to add expenses which in turn may drive away customers. Paying higher wages may also reduce the number of servers employed, and that’s never helpful when serving a table full of hungry, grumpy people.
The national seafood chain, Joe’s Crab Shack, tried the no-tipping model of food service in 2016. This venture required the eatery to raise food prices approximately 21 percent. In less than a year they reverted back because customers and employees decided they would seek meals and employment elsewhere. Joe’s Crab Shack research found customers enjoyed rewarding good service which probably meant the wait staff enjoyed it too.
It appears our Governor is searching for a remedy to a nonexistent problem. Maybe it’s because non-government worker unions are declining all over the state. Some insiders say he is doing this to help out the private sector unions with a new group of hourly workers to organize. Others surmise Cuomo is flexing his Department of Labor muscle like he did a few years ago, skipping over the legislature, to enact compulsory minimum wage hikes.
Our Gov. could learn from the State of Maine’s minimum wage mistake. The Maine legislature thought they were doing some good when they voted to increase minimum wages for all food service workers. When in actuality they succeeded in cutting server’s pay more than 50 percent. The Maine law was to take effect on January 1, 2018. However, before the legislative ink was dry, the service workers organized, campaigned, cajoled and threatened law makers into repealing their work.
This column needed background information which required research, so I visited several food servers in the area. I also spoke with owners of eating establishments. The results were no way scientific, but EVERY server I spoke to hopes tipping will remain. There was only one eatery owner who thought tipping should end. The result of all of my dining research taught me two important points; a YMCA gym membership is valuable for weight loss and the Governor should leave the tipped workers alone.