Wednesday, March 21, 2012

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The Hobo Philosopher

Florida and the Minimum Wage

By Richard E. Noble

It wasn't until I arrived in sunny Florida that I was made aware that employers actually paid workers the dreaded Minimum Wage. I had worked for ten years in a meat packing house in order to learn the skill of butchering. I was earning $4.00 per hour when I left Lawrence, MA to settle in sunny Florida. Yet everywhere I applied in southern Florida they would only offer me the minimum. The minimum at that time in Florida was $1.80 per hour. I decided that if the butcher's trade was considered to be so worthless in Florida, I might just as well go out and learn something new and different.

I got a job as a porter in a restaurant. My first paycheck was a real disappointment. I received bigger checks when I was a stock boy at the First National grocery store on Broadway back in Lawrence. I felt very humiliated.
I found out from the manager that the only job in that restaurant chain that paid $4.00 per hour was the job he held as manager. I told him, jokingly, that I wanted his job. Believe it or not, a few months later, I got it.

In less than six months, I was the manager of a busy restaurant on Fort Lauderdale Beach earning considerably more than minimum wage and much more than the $4.00 per hour that I had hoped for.

Shortly after becoming manager I got my second Florida shock – the payroll checks for the staff arrived. I was checking everybody's hours to make sure the checks were accurate when I got to the waitress payroll checks. The hours listed on the waitress checks were accurate but the pay amounts were all wrong. All the waitresses had checks for amounts like $1.42 or $1.39. And that was for two weeks work. I didn't dare waltz out into the dinning room and hand these rather foolish paychecks to any of these hard working girls. I felt that they would lynch me. I figured that the accounting department had put the decimal point in the wrong place. Maybe the check should have been $142.00 or $139.00.

I decided to call my supervisor.

When I told him my problem he laughed. He told me that the waitresses' checks were all accurate and correct.

"Waitresses only receive half of the minimum wage," he said.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because they get tips," he said.
"You mean because some generous hearted customers leave the waitress a tip, the house pays her the minimum and then takes half her hard earned minimum dollar?"
"That's right," he said.
"Is Florida a part of the United States of America?" I asked.
"It ain't Florida," he said. "It's the same rule all over the country for waitresses."
"You are kidding me?"
"No sir."

So I hung up and then I started figuring the checks once again. They were still wrong – even half the minimum wage amounted to more than the totals on these checks.

I called the supervisor again. "Hey pal, these checks are still all wrong. Even half the minimum wage amounts to more than the totals listed on these checks."

He chuckled once again, "You have got to take the taxes out."
"Well, my gosh, the tax on $1.49 don't amount to this much reduction. Am I on Candid Camera or what?"
"No, you're not on Candid Camera. They take out the taxes on the full amount of the minimum wage. They take taxes out as if the girls were being paid $1.80 per hour. You don't expect the government to lose money do you? How are they going to pay for all them jet planes and aircraft carriers? You've got to be more patriotic," he joked.
"Maybe they ought to name one of them aircraft carriers the Mary Joe or the Betty Sue instead of the Harry Truman or the Eisenhower? I have noticed though that many yachts parked on the Intercoastal have ladies’ names on them. The restaurant owners probably named them after all the waitress they have been screwing for all these centuries," I suggested.
“Well then, be nice to those girls because by your way of thinking they’re paying your salary too.”

The government had a problem all right but why did the restaurant owner get half of every minimum dollar that the poor girl earned?

I remember walking around that fancy dinning room handing the waitresses their paychecks. Some of them even said thank-you. I can't tell you what I felt like. I knew we lived in a jungle and this was a dog-eat-dog world but I had never been on the wolf's side before.

As I investigated the situation further, I found that the waitresses were also expected to give a portion of their tips to the bus boys and the bartenders. In some restaurants the waitresses paid for specialty items, like fresh shucked oysters and clams. They were often forced to pay as much as a buck a dozen. In many of this chain's restaurants the waitresses were also responsible for vacuuming the carpets before their shift, cleaning the bathrooms and even performing some kitchen duties.

It seemed quite evident to me that Florida restaurants were operating off the backs of their female, underpaid, exploited wait staff. The girls were paying everybody. This was a joke.

In talking to some of the older waitresses I found that many of them had to "buy" their jobs at these restaurants. A job at a good restaurant in Fort Lauderdale could cost them two or three hundred dollars. But this money didn’t always go to the owners. It went to the managers and sometimes to the head hostess or maitre d’. And then, if they were wise, they would slip the maitre d’ or the head hostess a little something before their shift started each evening if they wanted to get any of the known good tippers.

In recent years things really haven't gotten better for waitresses. I think with the new government demands, they have actually gotten worse. As I understand it, a certain percentage must be paid by the waitress on every credit card check she receives – whether she receives a tip from that costumer or not.

I ended up marrying one of these waitresses and she still drives me nuts every time we eat out. Whatever amount I put down for a tip isn't enough. She always makes me add to it.

You can always tell an old waitress, she buys something for two dollars and leaves four dollars as a tip. Waitresses take care of waitresses – and it's a good thing that they do because restaurant owners and the government sure don’t.

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