What if we all worked for tips?
In pretty much every job, your pay is related to your performance. Do your work well, generally speaking, and your pay will go up.
But restaurant servers are alone in relying directly on the goodwill and generosity of the people they serve in order to make a living wage.
If you deliver the mail, the federal government sets your pay scale. You don't have to go from house to house, schlepping catalogs and postcards, hoping the homeowners will each give you $5.
If you work for a company that relies on those catalogs to sell a product, your employer pays you. You don't have to count on every person who buys a shirt to contribute the amount of her choice to your paycheck.
Doctors don't get paid according to your perception of your surgical experience. Maybe they should.
Laws vary from state to state, but according to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), restaurants have to pay servers $2.13 an hour, as long as the server regularly receives more than $30 a month in tips, gets to keep all those tips, and the total hourly wage that results is at least the federal minimum wage. Otherwise, the employer has to make up the difference.
Work 50 hours a week for a month at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, and you'll have $1,450 — before taxes. That's a lot of work for not very much money.
Yes, some servers make more than minimum wage. Others don't.
Whether your server is one of the luckier ones depends entirely on customers' largesse. For the hour that someone is your server, you (and perhaps a couple of other customers) are the difference between that person paying bills or having the lights turned off.
Imagine this is how you were compensated.
Servers are people, too
When you decide whether and how much to tip, you have an opportunity to make a significant economic contribution to a real person.
There are other reasons to tip, too.
One is that serving is hard work. Servers have feet and backs that hurt.
They are constantly carrying heavy plates, trying to remember orders, going back and forth to get you ketchup, another soda, slices of lime, more napkins.
Another reason is that servers routinely get a lot of disrespect.
How would you respond if your boss got your attention by whistling, shouting or snapping her fingers? Do you prefer to be called by your name, or is "babe" good enough for you? How do you feel about clients who never quite figure out what they want and cannot be pleased?
Servers are intimately familiar with all those situations. Now imagine making minimum wage while being treated like that.
You can control your behavior, of course, but you can't control other customers. Your tip might be the thing that makes this particular hour of work worth enduring.
Tip well, don't protest the system
Yes, sometimes restaurant service is pretty bad. I set a world record for terrible service when I worked as a coffee shop host for a brief and star-crossed period during a high-school summer.
On Thursday nights, the coffee shop cleaned out its large coffee machine, using solvent that came out the other end hot, brown and smelling like coffee.
I served the brew to a table full of construction workers. Fortunately, one of them took a sip, spat it out and warned the others. I found a new job painting houses, where there were fewer opportunities for me to hurt anyone.
If your server tries to poison you, however accidentally, you have my blessing to omit a tip. Heck, the restaurant should probably comp your entire meal.
Beyond that, however, try to think about all the service you received, not just the part you didn't like. People have a tendency to focus on their grievances and ignore the ways they've been treated well.
Maybe the service was slow, but the server convinced the kitchen to make you an off-menu dish. Or you didn't like the food — but how is that the server's fault?
You don't have to like the tip system, but your opinion of it doesn't pay anyone's insurance bill.
When you go out to eat at a place with table service, leave a tip of between 15% and 20%.
If you can't afford that, you can't afford to eat there.
Pick a cheaper restaurant or eat at home, that lovely place where the service is always exactly what you make it.