Imagine waking up at 4:30 in the morning, taking a shower, making coffee and heading out the door to make it to work for the start of your 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift.
Imagine doing that every day of the week. Not just Monday through Friday. Every day.
Now imagine getting your paycheck and seeing that you have earned a whopping $119.28 — minus taxes, of course — for your 56 hours of work.
Now imagine where you might live. Nepal? Nigeria? North Korea? Try North Carolina, where the minimum tipped wage is a paltry $2.13 an hour. If you earn tips regularly (more than $30 a month) in the state of North Carolina, your employer can legally pay you $2.13, the federal “minimum tipped wage.” And some do.
Further imagine you’re making your $2.13 a hour, hoping that customers will find it in their hearts to leave a few extra shekels so that you can do something crazy … like buy food to put in your fridge.
One day one customer does. They leave you a lot of extra shekels in fact. Enough to put food in your fridge (or “on your family” to quote a favorite Bushism) and pay the phone bill, cable bill, car payment and most of your rent for the month. All from one customer — a one in a million customer who leaves you a whopping $1,000 tip. Your heart skips a beat. You call your friends. You tell the kids you’re getting steak for dinner. You pretty much won the lottery.
Hold on there, mister happy pants. That “lottery ticket” of yours don’t do you a lick of good if you can’t cash it. And the one place you can cash that lottery ticket — your employer — says they don’t allow big tips like that. At least not on a credit card. So they run the bill without the tip and you get nothing. Except, of course that $2.13 an hour you worked so hard for.
If you haven’t heard about it, this precise scenario played out on Mother’s Day in a Waffle House in North Carolina. Fortunately it worked out. The generous tipper tracked down the waitress who was denied her gratuity, writing her a check for the $1,000 she was meant to have.
Waffle House has since said that there was a communication gap. She wasn’t denied the tip, of course. They were trying to find the customer to ask him to bring in some cash or write a check. Mmm hmm.
The real travesty here, of course, isn’t Waffle House’s actions. It’s the state of North Carolina allowing employers to pay people $2.13 an hour in hopes of customers making up the difference so they’ll make greater than minimum wage. The real travesty is allowing the service industry to get away with paying a wage you’d expect to see in third-world country and then passing the buck directly to the customers to make up the difference.
Employers like Waffle House, of course, would tell you that if they paid more than the $2.13, they’d have to increase the price of their waffles or they couldn’t pay the rent on their house. So they pay the lesser wage and then expect the customers to pay extra for their waffles … directly to their server.
And then maybe Waffle House will let them keep their tips. Or maybe not.
Scott Leffler once drove 188 miles to eat at a Waffle House, where he hopes his waitress got her tip. Follow his eating escapades on Twitter @scottleffler.