Served: A little history about $2.13 and a response to a reader

I visited home this summer, in Washington State, near Seattle. I got to see a lot of my friends that haven't moved away, and we had a really good time. Most of my friends are living with their parents or on food stamps while they try to finish some school. A lot of them are unemployed or severely underemployed. One of my best friends has over five years of experience as a barista and had trouble finding a job after the cafe she worked at went out of business. She lucky got the job right after high school, a Starbucks inside of Safeway (the worst of both worlds). She and her coworkers constantly fought over hours and schedules. Here in Austin, it seems like nobody fights over hours because everyone in the service industry needs, at the very least, two jobs. It’s strange that finding a waiting job in Travis County (7.2% unemployment) is so much easier than in King County (8.1% unemployment). The truth is that if any of my friends were willing to work at McDonald's (sadly, some of them are), finding a job wouldn't be so hard. Last month (and probably every month since I started writing this column) I said that waiting tables in Austin wasn't what it was back home. I talked about how in Washington, where you make $8.50/hr plus tips, it's a pretty sweet gig that almost nobody is willing to quit (even once they finish school and get their “real” jobs). Here, it seems like anybody can and will wait tables, regardless of whether they're remotely capable. Earlier this week, I received an anonymous email defending the shitty service I've claimed of Texas' servers. I'd like to start out by apologizing to anyone who might have been offended. I didn't mean to blame the hard (and not so hard) working restaurant staff of this city, I merely wanted to point out the system that is in place here is somewhat flawed. The letter I got was from someone claiming 15+ years of service experience (including some bartending). I agree with almost everything this person said, and I think it's important that people understand what their servers are going through. This person's assessment of Austin's waitstaff problems boiled down to three major things: servers here are over-educated, only “cool” people or pretty people get good jobs (even if they suck at them), and finally, people in Austin “tip like shit.” Obviously, I concur. Why the hell else would I dedicate countless hours to raising public awareness of these issues? The one distinction I'd like to make is that people in Seattle are also “over-educated” and, contrary to my anonymous tipper's beliefs, do not wait tables as their “planned career.” The person who wrote to me expressed a severe problem with the way customers treat him/her, especially that last part about tipping “like shit.” One thing this person brought up, which I think is a common attitude among service industry people in Austin, is blaming the clientele when they should be pissed off at the minimum wage laws keeping them poor. Nothing is shittier than working your ass off and getting stiffed, but if you can't suck it up and keep a smile on your face, then you're in the wrong industry. I found my self oh-so-capable of “sucking it up” when I had a decent paycheck to look forward to. Somehow it became less manageable when my $8.50/hr turned to barely more than $2. Kind of like my first real job. It was at a Subway inside a mall in Olympia, Washington. My first two weeks of work somehow got paid to a previous employee and my bosses did little to fix it. I didn't get a paycheck for the first two months because of some problem with their paperwork. I was in high school and didn't have any real expenses, so I didn't really care. It seems they were counting on that. I ended up getting rearranged completely out of the schedule after only four months of work, but I soon found a way cooler job. One of my friends, Nathan, stuck it out at Subway for a while longer. About a month after I quit, Washington State raised its minimum wage. Nathan commented to his bosses at Subway that the new minimum had not been recognized on his last paycheck, he asked that they fix the glitch because it was the law. He was fired. Taking advantage of high schoolers is too easy. They're the one age-group in Washington that isn't going to fight for their benefits or get their employers in much trouble. They don't have bills to pay and it's usually faster to find another job (through of a friend of a friend) than fight with some grown-ups about a couple of bucks. In 1996, when “Bill” William Reynolds Archer sponsored the Small Business Job Protection Act (signed by President “Bill” Clinton), he effectively cut a lot of waiter's paychecks in half. The new law raised the federal minimum wage in two stages from $4.25 to $5.15, over the course of two years. It also took the original $4.25/hr, cut it in half (then rounded up by a half cent, WHOO!), and froze this new rate for food and beverage tipped employees. Every time the federal minimum wage has gone up since 1996 (a whopping total of $3/hr), servers have made the same discounted rate. It seems like servers are okay with that here. They're used to it. Imagine showing up to work in 1996 and being informed that you were going to make half of what you made the day before, while doing the exact same job. It's like the opposite of that great feeling getting a raise gives you (not like waiters here would know the feeling). Basically, I think waiters here are mad. And they should be. They should be making way more money for working so hard (if and when they do). But nobody should expect their customers to pay their wages if the service sucks. Server hostility and poor tippers could easily enter a never-ending cycle, with no winners.

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