by Len Lear
I have always thought that restaurant servers, especially those in lower- and mid-level chains, are among the most underappreciated workers in society. They have to put up with just about everything that customers (who are “always right”) dish out to them, not to mention managers who are also under extreme pressure to please every single customer, even if certain customers’ demands are unreasonable or rude or just plain unpleasant.
One local resident who knows all about this issue is Jenna Clay, 29, a Mt. Airy resident and criminal justice major at Chestnut Hill College who works two jobs while also taking classes and getting good grades at CHC. One of those jobs is in sales at T Mobile, and the other is as a server at a local chain restaurant (that will remain nameless).
Jenna is a real pro who has worked for numerous chains over the last 10 years, including Red Lobster, Bertucci’s, TGI Friday’s (seven different ones), Carabba’s, Ruby Tuesday and Famous Dave’s. She has even worked for two different ones at the same time. “It breaks up the monotony,” she said. “The fewer hours you work, the better you can do without feeling like it is taking everything out of you.”
What most diners do not know is that restaurants are exempt from the Minimum Wage Law and that in Pennsylvania most restaurants pay servers exactly $2.83 per hour! That is NOT a misprint! The excuse for paying slave wages is that servers will make actual money in tips, but of course, there is no guarantee that there will be a certain number of customers every night or that those who do come in will leave decent tips. (According to servers I have talked to, some owners of independent restaurants, NOT chain restaurants, even steal a certain percentage of their tips that are paid by credit card.)
Another fact known to almost no one outside of the industry is that a certain percentage of the price of all food sold by server (3 percent in Jenna’s case) is taken out of their tips to give to the buspeople, bartenders and hosts.
“Only cooks get an hourly wage where I work,” said Jenna. “Every restaurant I’ve worked at does this. And many customers do not take coupons into account when they leave a tip. (In other words, if there is a $10-off coupon, they tip on the amount of the bill after the $10 has been deducted, not before. About half of all customers at chain restaurants use such coupons.)The worst tippers are minorities. It all goes back the inequality of race and class.”
Can a server predict whether customers will be good tippers based on how friendly they are. “No,” said Jenna. “Some people will be very friendly and then leave almost nothing. Maybe they think their personality was their tip. Other people might not be particularly friendly but leave 20 percent. You just can’t tell.
“Some people will leave a tip of $2 for a bill of $50. That’s not unusual at all. Based on how little we get in salary and the fact that we have to give away part of our tips, we are working for nothing when we wait on those particular tables. But I am religious and spiritual, so I believe that what is meant to be will be.
“But you will hardly ever see a black female manager in a restaurant. To be young, black and female means you have a lot to overcome. Some people think things have changed over the years (race-wise), but they have not. There is a constant feeling of unworthiness. My sales have always been high where I have worked, but I have never been promoted anywhere. (She is extremely personable and efficient.) I have seen white males who look like crackheads get promoted, but I am too optimistic to pull the race card.”
Jenna grew up in Southwest Philly and went to Tilden Middle School, where she played the violin, and Franklin Learning Center (advanced classes). Her family later moved to Upper Darby. Jenna took real estate courses at Community College of Philadelphia but did not get her real estate license, although her grades were always good. She happened to have a miscarriage the same day as Hurricane Katrina.
“I was mulling about just to survive,” she said. “I did not have a plan. There are socio-economic manifestations in being from a low income area. I did not want to be a statistic, as so many are where I come from. I want to do positive things and work hard and not succumb.”
Jenna worked at the Inquirer from 2009 to 2011, making phone calls to solicit new subscribers, among other things. Then she was laid off. Two weeks later her grandmother died. Jenna, who had worked at Glaxo Smith Kline while in high school, went back to Montco Community College for three years and earned an associates degree in business in May, 2014. “Montco is a great school,” she said.
In August of last year she started at CHC on scholarship, $15,000 a year, as a criminal justice major. She has one more year for a degree. She also has a son, Eric II, 3, and works about 25 hours a week in commission sales for T Mobile.
“I was taught by my mother not to depend on other people,” she said, “but everything is a struggle. Many people around here have no clue what poverty is really like. I am still poor. I have had to work so hard for so long and still have so little. That’s why my main focus is education. I’m all about equality. I welcome everyone and treat everyone the same. If all people did that, we would have world peace. I try to focus on the best in people, not the worst.”