Working as a restaurant server can be among the worst jobs out there. Waiters and waitresses perform physically demanding labor, often in long, irregular shifts in high-stress environments, and they can be compensated in Pennsylvania at a base rate as low as $2.83 per hour.
The bulk of their pay, which comes by way of tips, is unpredictable and influenced by a variety of factors not related to the service received. A brief review of the research on tipping shows that race, ethnicity, sex, clothing, hair color, breast size, lipstick color, personal “ornamentation,” posture, touching and a variety of other irrelevant matters can have significant effects on how much a server makes in tips. Not to mention the quality of the food, over which servers have no control.
According to a report by the Economic Policy Institute, tipped workers are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-tipped workers, and almost half of tipped workers and their families rely on public benefits.
Perhaps it is because of these reasons that Career Cast has consistently listed being a waiter as among the worst jobs in America.
Over the past few years, a few restaurants across the country have been experimenting with models not based on tips. Some have added an automatic service charge at the bottom of the bill, and some have placed their employees on salary. One of the most innovative approaches may be happening right here in Pittsburgh.
Starting in April, Bar Marco, which is located in the old No. 7 firehouse in the Strip, will get rid of tips and instead will pay all employees a salary of $35,000 and health benefits. All employees also will receive shares of the business. Under consideration is giving each employee 500 shares that vest at a value of $1 apiece after three months of employment.
There will be bimonthly finance meetings, which all employees must attend and where revenue projections are set. If projections are met, the shares will increase in value, perhaps by 10 cents each; if they are exceeded, employees will receive 20 percent of the overage. The bonus system and bimonthly meetings will make the finances of the business transparent to everyone who works there.
Bobby Fry, a co-owner of Bar Marco, explained that this new approach will “bring consistency to everyone’s lives. So people aren’t making $200 one week and $1,000 the next.”
Bar Marco’s change not only provides a living wage and benefits, but also shifts the conception of servers from being auxiliary workers — paid a sub-minimum wage for the privilege of trying to earn a livable wage directly from customers — to being critical participants in the business. At Bar Marco, the shift necessitates that the servers increasingly take part in every aspect of the restaurant, from pickling and fermenting vegetables to helping set financial projections.
Lest anyone think restaurants that take this approach and get rid of tips are doing so simply out of the goodness of their hearts, Mr. Fry explains that it also makes good business sense. In addition to saving money through decreased employee turnover and training while giving employees more incentive to help improve the overall business, it can end the “nightmare” of “trying to coordinate the schedules of a group of part-time workers, each of which wants the busiest shifts.”
Under this new model, servers will receive what many of us already take for granted: a regular and consistent paycheck.
Moshe Z. Marvit is a fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation specializing in labor and employment law and policy (firstname.lastname@example.org).