Chew and Screw by Keith R. Higgons

You might think that an article titled “Chew and Screw” might be somewhat dirty. I suppose metaphorically, it is. Realistically though, it’s just one of many abominations that food and beverage workers are subjected to. To attempt to list every abomination would be a herculean task but some of the shit thrown at front of the house food and beverage workers include:

  • Servers have not had a minimum wage increase in well over 25 years when President Bill Clinton signed the Minimum Wage Increase Act, which effectively decoupled the tipped minimum from the federal minimum wage (tipped minimum wage was frozen in 1991 at $2.13 and it will be frozen in perpetuity).
  • 86% of them are making sub-minimum or poverty level wages (to which McDonald’s help line responded by suggesting to “stop complaining” and “register for food stamps”- for real).
  • Most food service employees do NOT have any type of health insurance (+/- 83% work without any kind of insurance). Obamacare offers modest progress, but mostly at the expense of the worker.
  • A 2010 study of Chicago-area restaurants found that 96.2 percent of workers reported having no paid sick days.
  • Annual food borne norovirus illnesses in the United States results in 15,000 hospitalizations and 150 deaths.
  • Restaurants using a tip pool may be deceptively placing ineligible employees in the pool and minimizing the servers’ wages.
  • Wage theft against undocumented workers.
  • Overtime wage exclusion and abuse.

…and on and on. Regrettably, as unfair, illogical and idiotic as many of these are, some of them are…wait for it…legal.

While the American economy is still mired in a recession (anemic growth at best) and decent well paying jobs for well-qualified individuals remain hard to come by, the food service industry still provides a viable way to earn money. For many, waiting tables or restaurant work in general was always a great “fall back” plan to generate income or earn extra income.

Something tells me that is no longer the case.

It would appear as though the restaurant industry made note of the financial implosion in 2008 and found a way to exploit it. As former Wall Street types applied for jobs as hosts, waiters and bartenders, owners and managers began to smell some of the desperation and responded accordingly.

Now they could not only treat people poorly, but they could also do it out in the open. To such a point that servers are becoming numb to such shitty treatment that it’s often hard to differentiate what is illegal shitty treatment and what is the case of someone just being an asshole, legally.

Over the past couple weeks the Internet has buzzed with the story of Suzanne Parratt, a former waitress at the Pig-n-Whistle at Rockefeller Plaza here in New York City, who was terminated for refusing to pay for a bill that three idiots walked out on.

Like many servers before her, Parrett was subjected to what is commonly known as the “dine and dash” or the “chew and screw” and I am sure I am missing a few. For the uninitiated, this is simply when patrons drink and eat and then bail on paying their check.

Now in the spirit of full disclosure, I have done this. Once, 26 years ago at a Denny’s in Dayton, Ohio. We called it “dine and dash” and we probably just presumed the restaurant would write it off. I say “probably” because my friends and I were pretty drunk and trying to ascribe any logic or reason to inebriated behavior 26 years ago is dumb. My point is I did it. I never did it again.

Once I starting working in restaurants I realized just how shitty this type of behavior is. The first time it happened to me I was crushed. It was three young people who came into this Italian restaurant I worked in (my first job waiting tables). They ordered one large pizza and three soda’s. Since we were all pretty close in age, I attempted to be their “pal”, naively thinking that would increase my tip. Thinking everything was copacetic; I dropped the check and went outside for a smoke.

They bailed.

Having to grovel before the manager and explain what happened was both crushing and humiliating. After a lecture about keeping an eye on my section, he wrote it off as the behavior of fools and that was that. Being so new to the business, the idea of covering the check never even crossed my mind.

From then on, I hovered around my tables like a hawk after I dropped a check.

When I started bartending, we would occasionally have someone walk out on a check. Typically, we either knew them or had their credit card. In the event we either didn’t know them or didn’t have a credit card, we would just bury the walk out drink by drink on other bills or put them on our buy back check. At the end of the day, that’s just a different type of theft…and to be very clear, a pretty typical practice among bartenders.

Eventually, I started managing restaurants and I think maybe two or three times I had a server come to me with a table that had left without paying. As irritating as it was, it never crossed my mind to make the server pay for it. It never occurred to me to hold someone accountable for another person’s poor behavior and fortunately that was also the mindset of the owner.

I don’t know exactly when it happened but as I continued to work at various restaurants it became more and more clear to me that there was always this unspoken rule that existed between servers and managers that if someone walked out without paying, you were responsible for it. It was never part of any training, it was never printed on anything, it always seemed to be just understood.

While it always seemed unfair to me, I had no idea it was also illegal.

When I first read about Parratt’s story, two things came to mind. One, I knew the Pig-n-Whistle where she had worked and had been there on more than one occasion (when it was operated under it’s previous name Channel 4). I was always nonplussed by it. Two, I was immediately reminded of how unique the majority of my restaurant experience was.

While I have been out of the restaurant game for a number of years and upon reflection my experiences with managers and owners was mostly fair and almost all of them were really decent people. Apparently, what was once the norm has seemingly become an anomaly. It would seem that, almost unilaterally, maintaining an environment of managerial fairness and decency has been replaced by one of fear and selfishness that is predicated by power and greed.

According to Parratt, she claims there was a ‘culture of fear’ on the issue of dining-and-dashing at the Pig-n-Whistle:

“It was repeatedly drilled into our minds that if a customer were to ever dash on a check, that the server is responsible for the tab. This is not uncommon in the restaurant industry, but in my many years of experience I’ve never actually seen it practiced. We were also told that if a credit card slip was unsigned, we would be held responsible for that as well, though I never was held responsible for that.” (1)

I contacted Suzanne Parratt and asked her if she wanted to tell her side of the story in detail to wait(er) Magazine, but it was shortly after she had attained legal counsel so we determined it was best not to.

The curse of being a monthly digital magazine!

Fortunately, the Internet grabbed the story and ran with it. It was literally one of those “shot heard around the world” moments. I can’t encourage you enough to read more about Suzanne’s story, you can find them on redditt, to Gothamist to The Bitchy Waiter to Gawker to ROC (Restaurant Opportunities Center United), and many others.

Parratt’s story is as common and simple as it is infuriating. What makes her story more unique, and therefore more important, is that she is taking a stand and is speaking out. And finally people are noticing!

Making a server pay for people who run out on their tab is both ethically wrong and morally reprehensible and, as Parratt pointed out to me, illegal. Understanding the reasons why it’s illegal can be pretty arcane, as most law is to non-lawyers. But in short, the restaurant owner gets to pay you less because you are making tips (the assumption being you will make more than the hourly minimum wage). HOWEVER, the minute they charge you for a walk out, or some other ridiculousness, they violate the law that allows them to pay you less. Bam, that is ILLEGAL!

Via email Parratt broke it down for me more succinctly, “If an employer is taking a tip credit, and charges staff for losses such as walk outs, they lose the privilege to take a tip credit…(and) are now breaking federal minimum wage laws.” (Here is a link to  U.S. Department of Labor Fact Sheet for the Wage and Hour Division for further explanation)

But that isn’t the only way some restaurants may be taking advantage of you. It’s no secret that credit card companies charge fees to use their services and according to Dissent Magazine, “…some owners take money from the waiters’ tip pool to cover that cost…” Furthermore, “Tipped employees’ earnings are jeopardized to a greater extent when owners subsidize the wages of non-tipped employees, such as managers, maitre d’s, silver polishers, and napkin folders, by adding them to the tip pool, in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.” (2)

Holy SHIT, things sure have changed since I was working in the industry. In less than ten years, the restaurant industry has truly become a dystopian environment.

So, the obvious question is “What can be done?”

Unionizing is messy and complicated, but if this sort Dickensonian descent continues, it may not only be the best way, but the only way to eradicate this downward spiral. It could also help to adjust the “fear management practice” and would most certainly help achieve and maintain some type of fairness. If you don’t feel you can do that, you can and should get involved; join ROC United or the IWW. Both are doing great work for the benefit of food service employees.

Most importantly, don’t allow yourself to be bullied into sacrificing your rights as a human or as an employee. And if it does happen, do something about it. If you’re unclear as to whether it is legal or not, ask someone, find out. If it is illegal, report it. If it isn’t illegal use freedom of speech and civil disobedience; BOTH are easier and more accessible today than at any other time. It’s one of the positives of social media.

Because of the abuse and sacrifices of many and the hard work of others, the food and beverage industry is under the microscope and in the cross-hairs of a lot of people. I do believe that substantive change can take place and we really are at a point where some of this crap can really be eradicated, but only if we coalesce and work together.

Suzanne Parrett did something. She took a stand for an illegal practice that people have tolerated and accepted for far too long. She did, and is doing, the right thing.
Don’t let her stand alone.
Share her story.
Share your story.

Sources:

Irish Central News

Dissent Magazine