For the first time in 16 months, I walked into a restaurant to meet a friend for lunch. What a moment. The hostess greeted us like family and a tag team of waitstaff buzzed around our table. We couldn’t stop smiling. Life was inching its way back.
By the time I left, I had remembered what I didn’t miss about eating out. All it took was a conversation with our server, starting with a question I’ve been asking waitstaff for nearly 20 years now: If we leave your tip on the credit card, do you get the full amount?
Our waitress shook her head and spoke softly. “I won’t get the money until my next paycheck,” she said. “And 3% is deducted from all charge card tips.”
Yep, we’re back all right.
Here’s your tip, minus 3%
This deduction from tips on charge cards is a common practice in restaurants, but don’t feel bad if you had no idea. It’s not as if management broadcasts it. Some owners have told me it’s perfectly reasonable to demand this deduction of their hourly wage workers who depend on tips to make a living wage.
If they’re so comfortable doing this to their servers, why don’t they let customers know? Why no signs on the wall? Surely, they could include an italicized message on menus: Tips left on credit card receipts are subject to a 3% deduction for service charges.
This is why I always try to carry cash when I dine out, and encourage you to do so, too. It’s the surest way for your server to get the tip you intended.
If you aren’t sure how tips are handled, ask your server.
USA TODAY Opinion newsletter:Get the day’s best insights in your inbox.
Now, it is not unusual for servers to share a percentage of their tips with bartenders and other staff. I’ve interviewed hundreds of servers, and rarely do they complain about this. They believe in supporting fellow workers who help them do their jobs. It’s called solidarity. In a more just world, we’d be calling it a union.
I turned to my public Facebook page to ask waitstaff and customers to share their experiences since dining rooms have begun to reopen. So far, more than 1,100 have responded there, with many others reaching out via email.
Some themes bubble up. More customers, for example, are noticing a “mandatory gratuity” on bills for larger groups, which some restaurants are identifying as groups of four or more. I recommend asking servers if they’re getting these supposed tips. In too many cases, they are not getting the full amount.
Also, many restaurants are understaffed right now, and servers ask for our patience. Joy Adamson is a bartender and 15-year veteran of the service industry who worked through the pandemic. She echoed the sentiments of a lot of waitstaff who described the challenges of a sudden increase in customers after working throughout the pandemic.
“I have stayed in this industry because I loved people and I was able to make a living while pursuing other careers,” Adamson wrote. “It has always been there for me. But we are struggling at the moment to get back on our feet and adjust to so many issues. We are doing our best. We just ask for people to be decent. And to not yelp about some subpar experience from exhausted staffs.”
Former bartender and server Arthur Hargate said the pandemic should change how we tip.
“If you understand how the most vulnerable suffered selectively from COVID and its impacts,” he wrote, “now you tip extra well because you can also deduce that those restaurant workers are still struggling if the place they work is not at capacity. Or you care more about yourself and just don’t think it’s important to show your thanks and help out those that are likely not making a living wage.”
Good service goes beyond a gratuity
There are good stories, too, and we need to hear them. My favorite came from 30-year-old Dani Bates, who is a waitress at a chain restaurant in Bowling Green, Ohio. On March 9, when COVID-19 vaccines were only slowly rolling out, her restaurant manager got an evening call from the local CVS. More than 20 first doses of the Pfizer vaccine would go to waste if they weren’t used by day’s end. Would his staff like to be vaccinated?
Ramadan at Starbucks:How companies can profit by respecting religious diversity
Bates was off that night, but her manager sent her a message encouraging her to go. “We rushed over, all of us,” she told me in a phone interview.
The CVS pharmacist in charge that night, Nicole Figlewicz, told me they had already reached out to health care workers, and had more left for other “essential front-line workers.” That’s when they started calling restaurants.
Bates said she will never forget that night. “We were working with the public, and so many weren’t wearing masks.” Her voice broke as she talked about her family members who work at nursing homes, and her 7-year-old brother, “who is my everything.”
“I could protect them,” she said. “I could see the end to all of this craziness.”
One more thing Bates wanted me to know: Figlewicz and two other pharmacy employees stayed after closing to make sure every dose was used on that cold winter’s night.
“They stayed there for us,” she said. “For us.”
Connie Schultz is a columnist for USA TODAY. She is a Pulitzer Prize winner whose novel, “The Daughters of Erietown,” is a New York Times bestseller. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter: @connie.schultz