Waiting tables is hard work. Wages are low, and both customers and bosses try to take advantage at every corner. Here's what you need to know to survive and even thrive.
An opinion piece in The New York Times last week started like this…
Help wanted: Salary: $19,000 (some may be withheld or stolen). No health insurance, paid sick days or paid vacation. Opportunity for advancement: nearly nil.
That describes the hardships faced by food-service workers – 20 million Americans, with half of them working in restaurants. According to a recent report called The Hands That Feed Us by the Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA), the food industry employs more workers than any other, including health care and retail.
Yet food-industry workers are so poorly paid, The Times reports, “The biggest workforce in America can’t put food on the table except when they go to work.”
I’ve been in restaurants for seven years, and I’ve learned to make a living with a combination of hard work and clever schemes. Here’s what you need to know to make it in this harsh world…
1. Focus on your tips
A little-known fact about servers is how little a restaurant pays them. Since they’re tipped employees, they fall under a special minimum wage. Federally, that minimum is set at $2.13 an hour – which hasn’t changed since 1991.
According to the FCWA report, that means that only 13.5 percent of those surveyed made a “livable wage” – giving them the ability to cover basic needs like housing, clothing, and nutrition.
I’ve made as little as the minimum when I worked in Texas five years ago and as much as $4.26 an hour in Florida last year. But neither would be enough to live on if you don’t…
- Forget about the hourly peanuts you make. It’ll all be sucked into the taxes you pay anyway. Concentrate on finding restaurants that are known for big tippers, not hourly wages.
- Keep track of your tips. If your tips don’t make up the difference between the tipped minimum wage and the regular minimum wage – last updated in 2009 to $7.25 – your employer is forced by law to pay you the difference. But there’s a caveat. The numbers are based on weekly totals. A bad shift today might be countered by a good shift tomorrow.
- Be responsible with the cash you get every day. Just because there are bills in your wallet doesn’t mean you can spend them. If you’re going out to have a good time, set a chunk of cash aside in your sock drawer – and don’t touch it. This is a big problem with some servers who let that cash burn a hole in their pocket.
2. Work long hours the right way
According to the report, only 11 percent of those surveyed worked more than 60 hours, with two or more jobs. I expected the number to be higher — working two jobs is smart.
Since employers are forced by law to pay you at least 150 percent of your hourly when you work more than 40 hours a week, most of them keep you from doing so. In the restaurant business, this translates to keeping you from picking up too many shifts or just sending you home in the middle of your shift. (I’ve had both happen to me.)
So, if your boss is stringent, work two jobs that’ll give you 25 or 30 hours a week. This way, you work as much as you want, and your wallet will reflect your hours.
3. Get insured one way or the other
Turnover in restaurants is high, so most of them see little value in investing for benefits. One of my managers used to joke that it’s only when restaurants force you to wear a tie that they care about you sticking around.
At my last job, we got a few minutes of vacation pay for every week we worked more than 25 hours. After four years there, I had accrued just a few days. According to the FCWA report, of those surveyed…
- 79 percent don’t have paid sick leave – or don’t know if they do
- 83 percent don’t get health insurance from their employer
- 58 percent don’t have health care at all
- 53 percent worked while they were sick
- 35 percent have used the emergency room as their primary care
Working for a chain of restaurants is more likely to get you health insurance – at the chain where I last worked, we had plans for both full-time and part-time employees. But don’t count on the job to give you benefits. Get health care on your own, if only to cover the basics. Check out our health care page to find discount rates in your state.
4. Move on up
If benefits are scarce, so is training and promotions. According to the report, of those surveyed…
- 81 percent never received a promotion
- 75 percent never had an opportunity to apply for a promotion
- 74 percent had no ongoing training from their employer
- 32 percent received no training at all after their first day
This doesn’t mean a salad prep can’t become a grill cook (which usually pays more). It just means that moving up is up to you. Like I told you in my guide to getting and keeping a restaurant job:
Don’t stop learning. Ask the bartender what good wine or drink goes with what dish. Memorize two or three suggestions a week. Within a month, you’ll know more than the others, meaning you’ll upsell more, getting guests to buy more than just what they wanted at first. Your wallet and your schedule will reflect this newfound knowledge.
This applies to cooks too. The kitchen manager at my last job started off as a busser and would stay late to help the cooks clean up – and in turn, they taught him how their equipment worked.
5. Take your breaks responsibly
Unfortunately, federal law doesn’t require an employer to give you a break. Thankfully, some state laws have this provision. In California, an employer has to give you at least a 30-minute break every five hours. In Florida, you get nothing unless you’re under 18. However, federal law says that if an employer does give you a break – five to 20 minutes – you get paid during that break.
According to the report, 40 percent of those surveyed never got even a 10-minute break. And 30 percent didn’t break for lunch.
I’ve never seen a manager object to someone taking a short bathroom break (which can translate to a cigarette or a quick phone call). But don’t be stupid about it. No matter what, never take even a five-minute break without your section (whether in the kitchen or out on the floor) being taken care of by a co-worker. That’s a quick recipe to get fired.
6. Be safe
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 4,960 workers died on the job in 2010. While serving food is a low-risk job, you can get hurt.
I once had a guest back into me and knock over a cocktail tray I was holding with four hot tea cups on it. I worked through my shift – but later found out I suffered third-degree burns on my neck and shoulder. Since this happened on the job, my restaurant paid for it all.
Back to the survey…
- 57.2 percent suffered injury or a health problem on the job
- 52 percent did not receive health and safety training from their employer
- 32.7 percent did not receive proper equipment to do the job
- 11.7 percent did something that put their own safety at risk
Most restaurants force you to wear slip-resistant shoes, or shoes that are specially made to stick to a wet floor. It’s not that they care for your well-being, it’s that they don’t want to be sued. If you slip and fall, and aren’t wearing the right shoes, they don’t owe you zilch.
For example, the first thing my manager did the night I spilled tea was…check my shoes. Only then did he authorize me to go to the hospital.