MEEKS: Twenty percent is the right standard

February 12, 2014 

In the past few months I have been in a number of conversations about tipping the waitstaff in the restaurants we frequent. There were a few folks in one group who did not tip very well and felt it was not up to them to supplement the low salaries of those who serve them. But there were others who felt they could not support the second-class minimum wage system that has been created for waitstaff in this country. The first place to offer protest is in leaving good tips.

All of them generally leave 20 percent of the check for the server as a standard. Clearly, all of us need to think about what we are doing in this state and most other states across this country to the nearly 13 million people who work in the restaurant industry.

At the moment, the minimum wage ranges between $7-9 an hour, but this group of folks work for $2.13 an hour and whatever tips they can make. If a person is fortunate enough to work in a very upscale restaurant where tipping is good, primarily because the checks are high, then their life can be somewhat better than someone working in places where customers leave small tips regardless of the amount of their checks.

Along with the low wages this group of workers receive, rarely, if ever, do the employers offer health insurance. They are expected to serve both as waitstaff, bartenders and janitors.

I had an opportunity to observe the work that goes on during the closing of a restaurant and it was amazing me to see how much cleaning and preparing the establishment for the next day is done by the same people who have already worked an entire shift. While I have observed waitstaff sweeping and doing nonserver jobs before, the chance to see the entire process occurring was rather astounding to me.

When someone is hired to serve, their employer is also getting a cleaning person, therefore the restaurant industry basically has a built in janitorial staff because everyone has to do the cleaning. One has to wonder why this is tolerated? Perhaps a part of the reason lies in the fact that we have a great ability to allow people to become invisible.

When we go out to eat we are focused upon many other things and our preoccupation with the quality of the service, the food or other issues often prevents us from thinking about the person who is serving us. There are times when I talk to those serving me and I get a little glimpse into their lives. But whether or not I talk to them, I know there is no place for them to live, to buy food or gasoline, that is designed specifically for tipped minimum wage earners. I know they are having to struggle to live and that most of them have to live with others in order to survive.

This is not acceptable since their industry’s lobby, led by Herman Cain in 1996, successfully made it possible for it to keep restaurant workers’ minimum wage separate from the national minimum wage that President Bill Clinton was pushing.

None of us should be happy with this state of affairs. Every person who works in this state and this country should be able to receive a livable wage. If a business cannot afford to pay its employees enough money to live and to have health insurance, then it should not operate. It appears that the restaurant industry is doing all right, since it made $683.4 billion dollars last year.

So let’s protest this situation by tipping better and by voicing our dissatisfaction with this system in all of the ways that we can. A second-class wage system is indefensible and does not deserve our continuing support.

This column by Catherine Meeks, Ph.D., appears twice monthly. Meeks is also a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Email her at

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