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Concord restaurant workers like earning tips, but want a higher base pay

  • Daniell Gelinas serves up some breakfast items at the Red Arrow on Loudon Road on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Daniell Gelinas serves up some breakfast items at the Red Arrow on Loudon Road on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 7/24/2021 8:39:31 PM

Danielle Gelinas works hard to keep her customers happy at the Red Arrow Diner near the Concord airport. She hustles to get plates on tables and keep coffee cups full.

Most times customers are appreciative and generous. Sometimes, they leave her a few cents or less.

When it’s all averaged out, Gelinas figures she makes between $15 and $25 an hour. It’s decent when times are good, like they are now, but the unpredictability of the pay is difficult to live with.

“It’s kind of a love-hate relationship with the wage you get,” Gelinas said. On one hand, people tip generously because they know that servers’ base pay is low. On the other hand, paying regular bills and making ends meet during a slow stretch, or during a global pandemic, can be maddening.

“When COVID started, it was really scary because we weren’t making money, ” she said.

As Congress considers a minimum wage increase and employers struggle to hire workers, one facet of the wage debate has received less attention is the subminimum wage that restaurant servers and other tipped workers earn.

An amendment to the coronavirus stimulus package proposed earlier this year by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders would have gradually raised the federal tipped minimum wage up to the same wage that other workers are guaranteed. The federal tipped wage has been at $2.13 an hour since the 1990s.

New Hampshire Sens. Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen were two of eight Democrats who opposed the amendment, which failed, and suggested in March that tipped workers oppose a wage increase because it could hurt their employers.

The opinions of New Hampshire restaurant servers themselves vary, according to interviews with a dozen servers at Concord restaurants. Some think tipped workers should make the same minimum wage as everyone else. Most said they like earning tips, but that they want a higher base pay rate.

In New Hampshire, the tipped minimum wage is currently pegged at 45% of the regular minimum wage, or $3.27 an hour. That pay rate applies to any worker who makes more than $30 a month in tips.

If a worker doesn’t earn enough tips to make an hourly wage of at least $7.25, the employer needs to pay the difference. In a two-year investigation of 9,000 restaurants, the U.S. Department of Labor found more than 1,100 tipping violations, leading to a payout of $5.5 million in back wages.

Gelinas said she would like to see the tipped minimum wage increase by a few dollars – and a higher minimum wage for other workers too.

New Hampshire freeze

Cassie Croswell and a few of her co-workers at downtown bar and restaurant The Barley House said they all consistently make well above the minimum wage with tips. But even though they make a good living, the instability that comes with relying on tips makes some servers eager for a higher base pay.

“I wouldn’t be opposed to it being raised a little, not crazy high,” Croswell said. “A lot of servers, they don’t get the recognition for all the hard work that they do.”

For Croswell, who said her base pay is $3.50, bad days can mean a significant hit to her take-home pay.

“If you have one table and they do a $10 tip, you’re making $10 bucks, plus $3 an hour,” Croswell said.

Those days can happen unexpectedly, but bills have to be paid on time. “If it’s going be a slow day, I gotta figure out what I’m going to budget each day to make a reasonable budget for that week,” Gelinas said.

Jenn Brown at Tucker’s Restaurant in the South End doesn’t necessarily want a wage as high as $10 an hour. “But $3.27 is not a lot if you have a bad day, or a snowstorm,” she said. “If you drive to work for five hours, you’re almost not even paying for your gas.”

Brown said tipped workers should get paid the same minimum wage as everyone else.

“I don’t know why we don’t – it’s stupid. But it’s been like that for years and years,” Brown said.

She used to be a preschool teacher, but she said she makes more as a server.

Longtime restaurant workers note that the tipped minimum wage has stayed the same for decades. Tucker’s worker Michelle Gamble, 52, believes servers are long overdue for an increase in base pay, which has remained the same since she started working in restaurants more than 30 years ago.

This year the New Hampshire Legislature passed a bill that Gov. Chris Sununu signed on Friday that will freeze the tipped minimum wage at $3.27 an hour, even if the federal minimum wage increases.

That doesn’t mean restaurants can’t pay their workers more – many do, especially at a time where it’s hard to hire and keep servers on staff, since many of them left the profession during COVID-19 with no plans to return waiting on tables.

The vacancies have led to opportunities for younger workers.

Concord High School student Katie Langille, 17, is thrilled with the $13 to $15 an hour that she makes working part time at The Windmill Restaurant on Loudon Road.

The unpredictability of the tipped wage means that sometimes teenagers can make a lot of money, but adults who have to cover their own expenses may struggle. Right now Langille doesn’t have to pay for rent or groceries, but soon that will change.

“I’m trying to think of myself in the future as a college student, waiting tables to pay my tuition,” Langille said. “What am I going to want? I’m going to want stability so that I can pay rent at the end of the month.”

Ending tips?

Some tipped workers said they fear raising the minimum wage too high because if restaurant workers were paid the same as other workers, customers would stop tipping, reducing the overall amount servers and bartenders take home.

That’s a potential consequence that few of the waitstaff favored, particularly those in the Concord area that earn well above $15 an hour.

Amy Whittle is a server at Barley House who says she can earn $30 or $40 an hour on a good night with tips.

“I would be curious to see if the minimum wage was raised up to a livable wage for servers as well, how society would deal with tipping,” Whittle said. “Society would have to re-learn how to go out and eat.”

Gamble thinks customers would still tip for a quality experience even if the tipped minimum wage was eliminated. “They’re still gonna tip you on your service,” she said. “So if you’re still a good server, you’re still going to be tipped.”

For some workers like Red Arrow Diner server Emma Best, 17, earning the bulk of their money from tips is a point of pride.

“I like what we get now,” Best said. “I like the way you get what you work for.” It helps that she gets some generous tippers, like one customer who gave Best a $100 tip for Christmas last year.

Brent Gould, a server at Col’s Kitchen on South Main Street, has a more philosophical view of the value of working for tips.

“I really feel like I work for the people of Concord rather than I work for (Col’s owner) Jordan (Reynolds) sometimes,” Gould said. “But if you switch that, then it’s more like you work for the kitchen rather than you’re working for the people.”

Cassidy Jensen bio photo

Cassidy Jensen has been a reporter at the Monitor, covering the city of Concord and criminal justice, since July 2021. Previously, she was a fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, where she earned a master's degree. Her work has been published in Documented, THE CITY, Washington City Paper and Street Sense Media. When she's not at City Council meetings, you can find her hiking in the White Mountains.

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