Minimum wage responsibility in tipping situations

Willis Webb

Having never worked in a job that relied on tipping to make decent pay or to reach the minimum wage requirement, it’s hard to identify with someone complaining about a shortfall in that situation.

A recent story outlined some problems for airport workers responsible for assisting disabled travelers. Apparently, Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport hires people to perform that service for an hourly wage that necessitates tips in order for the worker to reach minimum wage.

Actually, the whole scenario of employers being able to dodge that responsbility of paying minimum wage by requiring employees to seek tips to make up the difference galls me. I believe whatever the labor costs for any product or service are should be covered in the price. I do believe in tipping, but I believe it should be for excellent service and that the basic cost of providing the service should be borne by the establishment providing the product/service.

Of course, the food service industry is the most prominent of those whose employees rely on tips to make ends meet. I worked in food service as a first-semester college freshman in the mid-1950s at Sam Houston State Teachers College in Huntsville. The cafe was across the street from the campus and catered to students.

However, I was in the kitchen as an assistant cook so no customer contact was required. The cook was an alcoholic exconvict who lasted one week after I arrived. He fell off the wagon. There I was an 18-yearold college freshman whose home duties growing up included doing the dishes but never had I been required to do any cooking.

In the cafe, the cooks couldn’t perform their duties without a long knife. The handle was just big enough to fit in your hand. The blade was perhaps four inches wide at the handle and tapered for the 14-15 inches in length to a good point. It was, viewed in someone else’s hand, a mean looking weapon. And, it was always in my hand as I prepared to feed what seemed like half the campus.

The cafe’s owner, an SHSTC alum, was one of the nicest guys in the world. He knew I needed the job to attend college.

The eatery did a land rush business for the evening meal. The cooking facilities included a huge stove with a grill that would hold 25-30 hamburgers, along with an oven that could handle three or four Mexican dinners and a deep fry with enough baskets to turn out a dozen servings of french fries and an occasional shrimp or fried fish order. There were a couple of toasters to prepare bread for the infrequent BLTs or club sandwiches.

The cafe was near the college’s departments of music, agriculture, women’s physical education and journalism, a real eclectic mix. The juke box had an even distribution of cool jazz, country (which in those days was more screeching hillbilly) and rock and roll.

But, just about everyone who came to the cafe ate hamburgers. Almost. One evening, I had two dozen burgers on the grill, two Mexican dinners in the oven and the deep fry had four baskets of fries going. All of these orders were placed individually and verbally by the waitresses.

One waitress came meekly into the kitchen and said softly, “I need a cheese omelet with bell peppers.”

Well, that would take up a large portion of the grill.

My reac t ion wa s to wa l k through the door that separated the kitchen and the dining area, my usual right arm extension in place, and ask loudly, “Who ordered the cheese omelet with bell peppers?!”

One of the music majors, dark glasses in place after sundown, meekly raised his hand and said, “I did but take your time.”

The cafe owner followed me back into the kitchen and calmly said, “You think maybe you overreacted?”

“Yessir. Sorry.”

And, I learned about keeping your cool. But, the music guys ordered burgers after that day.

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2011-11-24 digital edition

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