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Working for tips is tougher

I've worked in the restaurant industry for 15 years. In that time I've found the most accurate barometer for the state of the economy and its effects on "Main Street" can be found in looking at the average sales and tip percentages of the person who waited on you the last time you took your family out for dinner.

You know us: We're the 20-somethings you see at your favorite restaurants, sprinting between tables, making sure your prime rib is the right shade of pink and your bottomless glass of iced tea is always full. We're your kids and grandkids, the ones you worry about, wondering if we'll find our way into that storied "professional" class featuring things like health insurance, sick leave and retirement plans.

We have rent to make, debt to maintain, late hours to work and early classes to attend. That is, if we can afford college at all. The degrees we seek, however, seem to be worth less and less, despite how expensive they are, and things like benefit packages seem more and more like the stuff of some nostalgic fairy tale.

Perhaps our own disaffection is part of the problem we face. For all the discussion surrounding the potential for the youth vote to affect the outcome of the presidential election this year, there are still plenty of us who are disillusioned about the political process.

Last month, one of my co-workers, a young woman just above the voting age, confessed that she wasn't registered to vote and that she didn't participate because "the government doesn't have anything to do with my day-to-day life." As it turned out, this sentiment was echoed by more than a few of my other co-workers. Working with the same young woman one recent afternoon, I asked her while pointing to the empty dining room, "If you think the decisions politicians make don't affect your life, then how do you explain this?"

There has been much made in this campaign cycle of the struggles of the middle class in America — the eviscerated retirement funds, foreclosures, skyrocketing health care costs. Surely, these are real problems facing our nation's people and economy, but from the position of a service industry worker, these are problems we could only hope to have.

Such is the case with a friend of mine who works as a cook in another local restaurant. He was recently slapped with a $200,000 hospital bill after he suffered a heart attack at the age of 21. He took some over-the-counter cold medicine in order to make it through a shift he couldn't afford to miss at a job that pays $8 an hour and offers no insurance benefits. He was affected catastrophically by one of the ingredients in this medicine. Three weeks later, he's back at work, paying out of pocket for the dozen medications he'll be taking indefinitely, living with a damaged heart and health care debt he has no hope of ever paying off.

As I'm sure many of you know firsthand, the livelihood of a waiter depends solely on what our customers think the value of our service is worth. Our wages, usually around $3 an hour, exist only to be taxed. A good waiter walks away at the end of a night's work with an average of 15 to 20 percent of total sales.

From the outset of this economic crisis, my sales have plummeted, as have my tips. There's been a record absence of my most regular of customers. A few days ago, my boss told me he couldn't remember a slower lunch in all the 18 years he's been open. The gap between the night on the dining room floor marked by 10 percent tips, and the day on the trading floor marked by 7 to 10 percent marketwide losses is clear and narrowing.

According to a September news release from the Agency for Workforce Innovation, 12 percent of Florida's work force is made up of people working in the hospitality industry. That's about 1-million people. If you expand that statistic to include everyone in Florida's service sector — in-home health care workers, trash collectors, maintenance staff, to name a few — it accounts for nearly 46 percent of the work force, or about 6.5-million people.

But statistics are cold and easily forgotten. To put it in more concrete terms, we are the 6.5-million people who are struggling to keep our lights on because of spiking utility costs. We are the ones who are dangerously living without health insurance because we can't afford a privately owned policy and our jobs don't offer us benefits. We are the vast underclass, the ones who support this newly insolvent middle class and who rely on their patronage.

From where I'm standing, I can see no clear separation between Wall and Main streets. If there is any positive outcome from this crisis, it may be that the "every-man-for-himself" mind-set that has spurred this ongoing class warfare for so long is quickly dissolving.

To return to the young woman I mentioned at the beginning — she has since registered to vote and set an example for all of us. You see, that's the one thing we all have in common, whether you're a service worker like me, a middle-class parent or grandparent who worries about your family's future, or a once-wealthy business executive whose investment portfolio is tanking — we all have a voice.

It's time for us all to stand up as Americans and let our voices be heard. We should not just vote, but we should vote with each other in mind. If we're going to rise out of these tenuous circumstances, we must do so together.

Adam Boles lives and works in Tallahassee.

Working for tips is tougher 11/01/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 4, 2008 3:44pm]

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