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An American Waiter: Reaching the Tipping Point in L.A.

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Scott Sanchez/Wikimedia

The Australian woman with the large framed glasses signaled me to come over to her table, where her husband and she were having a difficult time understanding the check.  It’s a conversation I’ve had many times with our overseas guests at the RH restaurant inside the Andaz Hyatt Hotel on Sunset, where I work as a waiter.

“No, Ma’am, a server’s gratuity is not included in the check.” I told her.

She looked at her husband and blushed. They had been at the Andaz for a week. They had eaten in the restaurant at night a handful of times, but they hadn’t tipped their servers anything. They were embarrassed.  I was embarrassed. It’s an odd thing to guide someone on how to pay you.

Of course as an employee, I’m never allowed to tell a customer what to tip. That is an offense that I would likely get fired or disciplined for, but when an overseas guest is confused about the system and asks how it works, I inform them that tipping is left to their discretion.

“Ah, trickle-down economics,” the husband of the Australian woman said joyfully. Oh, no, I thought.

Tourism for Los Angeles hotel waiters has become a double-edged sword. A few weeks back, the Los Angeles Times cited a 16 percent increase in overseas travelers, and the city’s visitors bureau figured that $239 million had been put into the economy via hotels, restaurants, taxis and other expenditures. Most of these guests arrive from Australia and China, and those demographics certainly hold up for the business at the Andaz Hotel in West Hollywood. The problem is that most restaurants in those countries already include the gratuity in the check. Problem? I think so.

Globalism, it seems, has been great for our overseas travelers visiting us here, but terrible for an American waiter catering to those guests. I have a hunch that waiters living in those countries must love Americans traveling abroad. An unsuspecting American would be tipping on top of a gratuity already included in the check.

One of my fellow servers and I did the math over the summer, during the height of tourism season. It was estimated that due to the misunderstanding of the gratuity and how it works for our overseas guests, we were absent nearly $700 for the month of August. This was either because of no tip at all or tips below ten percent. And it is a little hard to argue poor quality of service since Andaz service scores are rated as being near the top within the Hyatt Company.

Luxury hotels like the nearby Chateau Marmont have figured this out. While dining with my wife a few weeks back, I noticed that the menu stated clearly at the bottom that “a 15% service charge will be added to all checks.” I warmed up to the waiter who was serving us and I asked him the reason for adding the gratuity to the check. “The management likes to keep a standard for what is acceptable tipping,” he said.

Waiters have differing opinions on what is appropriate tipping, but to me this was music to my progressive ears. Especially in a climate where so many businesses are taking perks away from their workers instead of giving them. For me, a mandatory 15 percent would be like a Christmas bonus.

Yesterday my union, Unite Here, Local 11, along with a broad-based coalition of other groups, met at City Hall to pressure council members into supporting Destination L.A., a program that voices support for the tourism industry in Los Angeles but also demands that hotel workers get a fair living wage. We were representative of cooks, housekeepers, dishwashers, and waiters.  We filled council offices — much to the horror of many staffers.  We made it abundantly clear to council members that our support for them rested on their support for us on this issue. I hope they listened.

I’d personally like to see council members pressure hotels into following Chateau Marmont’s good example and place a mandatory 15 percent on waiter’s checks that work in the hotel industry. It doesn’t seem right to allow our overseas guests to believe that they are getting a cheaper meal, which in actuality comes out of the waiters’ pockets. American hotels have taken advantage of this quirk in the system for far too long.

It’s time to raise the standard. It’s time that our tourism benefited more than just the consumer and the top 1%.  It’s time to get globalism working for guys like me, an American waiter in Los Angeles.

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