OPINION: Come on, Sarnia. Remember to tip restaurant workers

Sharon used to love her job.

She’s worked more than 30 years at local restaurants as a server and bartender. She has raised her children and managed quite nicely earning the $12.45 an hour afforded servers at licenced establishments in Ontario.

That’s nearly $2 below minimum wage, because it’s understood that servers also receive tips from customers. Pre-pandemic, many local servers could take home $25 to $35 an hour with tips added in.

But COVID changed all that.

With no table service, many restaurant customers aren’t tipping servers, despite their hard work and dedication to keeping restaurants afloat.

Of course, some people remember to add a gratuity when they order.  But many don’t. Restaurant workers are largely invisible these days because it’s the delivery people who actually have customer contact.

Servers take orders over the phone, see to special requests, check each order, package it up, and ensure it gets to the right person. They also must leave the safety of their homes so restaurant meals can still be enjoyed during lockdown.

“It feels like servers are being forgotten,” says Sharon, who didn’t want to use her real name for fear of sounding “whiney.”

“When people order on the phone, only about half remember to tip,” she said.

On top of that, her hours have been drastically cut back. What was once a living wage can no longer sustain Sharon after a year of lockdowns and partial openings.  Reluctantly, she’s thinking of leaving the industry.

Other servers I interviewed have the same worries.  A job they enjoyed has become very difficult to do on less than minimum wage and sporadic tips.

Each said they are sticking with it so their employers can get through the pandemic, but it’s increasingly difficult the longer this goes on. And they didn’t want their comments misconstrued as greed.

John Mallon at downtown’s Ups N’ Downs pub said wait staff in the hospitality sector are “hardwired” not to say anything negative, so the public is largely unaware of their current struggle.

The reality is, Sarnians aren’t accustomed to tipping for takeout because, apart from pizza, we didn’t do a lot of it pre-pandemic, said Mallon. We aren’t catching on to the reality that servers are doing everything they usually do except clear tables.

And many people think tipping the delivery person somehow covers off the servers. It doesn’t.

“There’s definitely a crowd that doesn’t tip anyone except the delivery drivers,” agreed Tania Auger, owner of Lola’s on Christina Street.

“My girls used to get 20% or more on every bill,” she said. “Some people are still very generous, but the other day we packed up everything for a $200 order and got no tip at all.

“It’s such a drag and, to top it all off, the delivery driver got tipped instead.”

To be clear, no one begrudges the tips delivery drivers get. Every server and restaurant owner I spoke with said the drivers deserve every penny.

The problem is that servers are largely forgotten. And it isn’t just tipping.

“It’s also about the minimum wage for servers,” Sharon said.

Ontario’s minimum wage is $14.25, and $13.40 for students. But servers get $12.45 an hour before tips.

“I think we’re falling through the cracks and government should make us equal to everyone else,” said Sharon.

“We’re considered essential workers, but teenagers are making more than me right now.”