by Glenn Reed
(Swans - May 20, 2013) The sign was prominently displayed right at the counter where customers order. It read "No Tipping." My fingers stopped checking my pocket for spare change.
This past weekend I was driving across the State of Vermont to visit my parents and feeling my insomnia from the previous night. I decided to stop about halfway through the two-hour trip to get a cup of coffee. The only place open on this rural stretch of road (kind of redundant for Vermont) on a Sunday was the local franchise of a national chain, which I won't specify. Oh what the hell, it was a Dunkin' Donuts, but it could just as well have been a McDonald's, Subway, AM/PM, Taco Bell, etc.
While waiting for my caffeine fix, I noticed the sign at the counter that told customers not to tip the staff. Curious, I asked the young woman working there why this wasn't allowed. She gave me what was obviously the company line, which is that "staff were not properly reporting their tips for tax purposes."
Imagine such a thing when you're making minimum wage...or slightly more! They should be taking advantage of tax shelters in the Grand Cayman Islands rather than begging for spare quarters anyway.
"I still like working here," the perky young woman said as she handed me a small, with cream only. Her co-worker's voice behind her cut in with an amplified "Can I help you?" directed at the Massachusetts-plated car at the drive-up window.
Anyone who has ever worked at a restaurant knows that such employers are allowed to pay less than minimum wage due to the practice of tipping by customers. When reporting employee wages paid to the United States Federal Internal Revenue Service (IRS), they can claim minimum wage and the wait staff don't have to report any income earned beyond that amount. Okay, perhaps the sociopathic corporate CEOs and their clueless and heartless cohorts in the US Congress don't know this little fact unless they own a restaurant chain. Even if they do, I'll bet most leave crummy tips.
Harried and foot-sore wait staff are forever asking "Is everything okay?" and refilling water glasses in their quest for a decent tip. On slow shifts it may mean the difference between making minimum wage and not, or during busy times (love those long, holiday weekends!) will allow them to feel relief that they've made enough to cover rent or buy something extra for one of the kids. All too often they "bust their buns" at a table only to find that the person paying thinks that a couple of bucks is an acceptable tip on a $50.00 bill. As for benefits in a restaurant job...ha! Not unless you reach the management level.
Fast-food jobs, on the other hand, are in a different category in terms of the tipping thing. This is partly because there is no waiting on tables involved. So those jobs have always paid at least minimum wage (except for those under age 18, of course).
In the old days, say before the so-called "Reagan Revolution" in the United States, restaurant wait staff jobs were typically filled by married, working-class people, women seeking some extra income, college students needing a summer job, older women wanting to keep busy and make enough for the new dishwasher or couch that their cheap husbands wouldn't agree to purchase. Fast-food jobs seemed to be taken mostly by high school and college students who wanted spending money and didn't need to make more than minimum wage. The regular restaurant wait staff positions were the more desirable, of course, since there was the potential for making decent tips if you worked hard.
Of course, the economy has radically changed since the 1980s. The middle class has been decimated. Decent paying jobs with benefits have been eliminated as manufacturers have moved overseas. The ratio of the highest paid CEOs to lowest paid workers has widened to record levels. Student debt is skyrocketing, while Wall Street makes record profits on the back of millions of Americans. Unions have lost membership under the far right dating back to when Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers back in 1981. Almost the only jobs out there are highly specialized, requiring extensive education (more debt) or in the service industry at low wages with few or no benefits. They're even starting to out-source some of those high-tech jobs.
Ah, then there are the games of the service industry employers, where the Walmart mentality of maximizing short-term profit by minimizing costs rules! The corporate chains will all say they leave the details on wages and benefits up to their individual franchisees, but then provide them all with the blueprints for screwing over their employees.
Want to run a franchise and make the big bucks? Don't offer benefits to your employees. If you do offer benefits, only offer them for full-timers, then hire people at part-time hours so they don't qualify for them. Of course, do not offer vacation or sick time unless they're full-time employees (maybe). Got the flu, fast-food employee? Gut it out (or puke it out) and "just do it!" on your shift or else stay home and risk not making enough to pay your electric bill. Retirement? Forget that modest trailer park near a Florida beach. You've just got to work until you can't walk anymore and take more pain-killers when it hurts (feed those pharmaceuticals with your minimum wages). So what if employers are discriminating against people over age 50 right and left, because Walmart always needs senior citizen greeters and the desperate will always agree to cover the night shifts that everyone hates.
Hell, all you really need to do is string two or three low-paying service industry jobs together and you could be making enough to cover your rent, utilities, food, and that nagging student loan. Maybe. Don't worry about health care! Remember how Mitt Romney reminded us during the 2012 US presidential campaign that hospital emergency rooms are this country's medical safety net for the uninsured? Just get in line.
And so...no tips, please! We're happy to serve a company (Dunkin' Brands, Inc., which owns Dunkin' Donuts) that reported about $7.7 billion in sales a couple of years ago! After all, we're "associates" and certainly not oppressed workers!
I asked the Dunkin' Donuts employee if she got any sick or vacation time or other benefits. She just laughed a bit and said "no." "If you work for them for at least three years, then they start to contribute to a retirement plan," she said, her expression clearly indicating that she couldn't imagine anyone working for such a company for that long.
"What about sick time?" I asked.
"We don't get that," she said. "If we call in then we're responsible for finding coverage for our own shifts. If you call in sick more than three times, then you can be fired."
I noted that with jobs I've had, it was management's responsibility for getting coverage for those who called in sick. She gave me that "yeah, in a sane universe" look again.
I try to imagine waking up with a nasty flu. You know, the kind where you're running to the bathroom every half-hour, alternating between the sweats and the chills, constantly nauseous and achy. The last thing you want to do is call around for people to cover your work shift.
"Does that mean they want you to work when you're sick and you can't find coverage?" I asked.
"No," she said with a smirk that said "hey, I know it's a Catch-22!"
In the last month I've read that fast-food workers have gone on strike in numerous cities, including New York, Detroit, St. Louis, and Chicago. They're seeking better wages and the right to unionize.
I think about the millions of service industry workers across the country who are in the same sinking boat of low wages, no benefits, anti-union managers, futures that are increasingly bleak in an economy that sucks the life out of 99% of us to benefit the endlessly greedy few. I picture that young woman at the small Dunkin' Donuts outside a small town in a rural state and so many like her. They don't have access to the support structures and activism of urban areas. It's much more difficult for them to fight for their rights.
I see this Dunkin' Donuts employee greeting Massachusetts and New York tourists with her enthusiastic smile, moving about on sore feet, hoping she doesn't catch that cold going around, unable to even look forward to counting through change in a tip jar. Despite all of that she still likes her job and works hard.
I think of the Dunkin' Donuts' CEO, Nigel Travis, who made close to $2 million in compensation last year. I think of all of his type, whose hands are forever in the tip jar that is the back pocket of the 99%.
It's enough to make me spit out my coffee.
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About the Author
Glenn Reed is a freelance writer who has worked in the non-profit world for nearly 30 years, both as paid staff and volunteer. He is also a lifelong activist for social, economic, and environmental justice. Originally from Vermont he is currently residing in Washington State and working in the non-profit world. (back)