What it means to make tips as a Service Industry Professional
When I began my work life, I was sixteen, living in a disfunctional household in middle America, with very bleak prospects. The future of many of my peers seemed already laid out. Some were headed to the military, others to parenthood. Not many of us were on some trajectory to the dream lives that we had all spent hours on the phone or at pool parties boasting about to one another. My first job was at an ice cream shop making the then minimum wage of $3.13 an hour.
That was in 1987. When I graduated from high school, I had the dream of studying acting, working in the theatre, and maybe teaching college. I found an opportunity to make that happen by working hard and supporting my talents. I scooped ice cream all school year, not making much, but being able to provide a meal for my little brother sometimes, and buying a Christmas tree to create a bit of normal out of the dysfunction. It really wasn't much, but that job put me on a path that has supported me my entire life. For that I am grateful.
I moved on from scooping ice cream to bussing tables to becoming a server at a diner. Waiting tables became the optimal job for me. It was perfect for someone going to school, working in the theatre, and trying to pay rent. Scheduling was perfect. A person could choose whatever they wanted to work. As a server, you had the ability to swap shifts with other servers allowing your schedule to work for you. If I was cast in a show, all I had to do is change things around and I could find time to take my classes and do the show and still make money to pay my rent.
And you could pay your rent. Granted, back then rents were not as high and burdensome as today. What we were making was appropriate at the time and I wish for the same today.
I worked under the tip credit system. Servers made $2.13 an hour plus tips. Many times, if not all the time, our paychecks would be zero. But it didn't matter. The money was in the tips. My average would be around $18 to $20 an hour. In the 1990's, in the midwest, that was a good living.
That money allowed me to get through school and support myself. The flexibility and fruitfulness of the industry allowed me to follow my passions, travel outside of my hometown and have a life that I would have never been able to have if I had decided to work a retail job. Tipping allowed me to make my circumstances better.
Fast forward thirty years and I'm still working in the industry. A lot has changed. I finished school, worked in the theatre, got married and started a family. Like any artist, I kept my day job. I moved through the industry, working at various restaurants in various cities. I learned wine and fell in love with cuisines from countries I have yet to visit. As time went on, the money continued to get better as I climbed the restaurant ladder. Even as cost of living started to rise, tipping culture always came to the rescue. As the cost of goods goes up, so do menu prices and so do tips. Tips are usually measured as a percentage of what is spent. Customers were tipping well and as my skills grew so did that percentage. I could consistantly make 18 to 20 percent on any check. Sometimes I could make more.
Recently, the tipping culture has come under fire. Special interest groups who would like to change the service industry for their own benefit have disparaged tipping. It makes me angry as these groups push policies that end up pushing employers to change their pay models and kill tipping. It is often a bitter pill disguised as social justice.
I think back to when I was that young girl, with very little resources and very big dreams. I think about how lucky I was then to find a path into the service industry and the opportunity to make tips. And I think of that girl today, only having the opportunity to make less money in a time when cost of living is so high. She may never be alloted the chance to support herself because her wages will not rise above a close to minimum wage scenario. Even as the wage has been pushed to rise, it will never be able to replace the income workers can garner in tips.