• Opinion: Rage Over Wage

    Tags: Commentary

It's the age-old battle of the restaurant business: The back-of-the-house staff can't stand the front-of-the-house crew, because the latter works fewer hours in an arguably more comfortable environment -- and makes more money in the process.

But here's the really bad news: The rift between the two will worsen if you own a sit-down pizzeria in California. On New Year's Day, that state's minimum wage will rise 50 cents to $6.75 an hour -- $1.60 higher than the federal mandate.

In most states that wouldn't mean much to servers and bartenders. Typically their hourly rate is below the minimum because gratuities make up the majority of their pay. But not in California. There, servers and bartenders start at minimum wage. Think of that: $6.75 an hour plus tips.

I can almost hear the cooks sharpening their knives now.

Understandably, California operators are up in arms about the increase. The timing couldn't have been worse: the sputtering economy has reduced customer counts, and the travel industry -- a huge source of income for Californians -- has yet to recover from the events of Sept. 11.

Tough luck, says Joe McLaughlin, president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, Local 49. Earlier this month, he told the Sacramento Business Journal that operators have no reason to whine about the wage boost.

"The corporations are complaining, but they're making plenty of money," McLaughlin said. "They cried (about the increase) last year, but nothing happened. They said the 50 cents would kill them, and then business went through the roof."

Hey, Joe, have you read the papers lately? Times have changed. That was then and this is now. No one's business is "through the roof" anymore.

The California Restaurant Association recently applied for emergency legislation that would delay the increase for six months -- for bartenders and servers only. By then operators are confident the economy will have righted itself and their restaurants will be full again.

Let's hope so.

In the meantime, restaurateurs are scratching their heads as to why tipped employees should get a mandatory raise. Richard Allum, director of marketing for San Francisco-based Amici's East Coast Pizzeria, said that with the current minimum wage of $6.25 an hour, servers at the five-store company already make close to $20 an hour.

"The amount of money the company spends on servers will increase 8 percent after it goes up," said Allum. "So, some of our highest-paid employees are getting a pay increase."

That makes no sense, and here's why:

Tipped employees, except for busboys or food runners, are salespersons working on commission. The formula is simple: Give great service and you'll be rewarded. It's worked that way for decades.

Also, a good server or bartender doesn't need a college degree, just common sense, a willingness to learn the trade and a genuine concern for customers. In my book, if you can earn $20 an hour doing those jobs, you don't need the government's help.

Yes, that wage likely is on the high end of the scale for servers in full-service pizzerias, but it's not that high. When I quit waiting tables a decade ago in a similarly priced restaurant, I made about $14 an hour -- supported by an hourly rate of $2.13! Working about 32 hours a week, I still made $23,000 my last year there -- $3,000 more than I made when I later graduated and became a full-time journalist.

Those benefiting most from this increase aren't the most deserving. I cooked professionally for eight years, so I know what amount of dedication it takes not only to become good at it, but to work for such paltry pay. When business goes up, so do servers' earnings. Cooks' wages, however, stay static, which isn't exactly motivating.

Ken Parkinson, a restaurant consultant in Sacramento, told the Journal that if you pay servers more money on the hour, there's none left to compensate the back-of-the-house staff fairly. "What happens is that you can't afford to pay the real talent in the restaurant -- the people in the kitchen."

This increase helps those who don't need it. Any server who needs this increase as much as a dishwasher does probably ought to quit serving tables.

In time, this trend will pass -- to your neck of the woods. In the U.S., culinary currents flow from California eastward. It concerns me, therefore, that changes in the foodservice wage structure occurring there will spill over to other states. That's not good for a tight-margin industry.

If you want to avoid the same in your state, then make your opinion known. Support the restaurant associations that help shape legislation that actually fits the nuances of the restaurant industry. There's strength in numbers, and these groups are organized and savvy about getting the message out.

Yes, that'll take a commitment of time, your most precious commodity. But it could help restrict the misapplication of laws to your business, and ultimately protect your profits.

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