Darrell and I just returned from his family reunion in a quaint resort town on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. It’s a community of watermen, fishing boats, upscale bed-and-breakfasts and gracious vacation homes. And like other vacation hotspots, local restaurant owners are struggling to find workers.
It’s especially tough as Americans are cramming onto planes to travel (every flight we were on was at maximum capacity), eager to leave home after more than a year of virus-enforced staycations. We took a short trip to Sedona in May. It was mobbed. We were told it was their busiest pre-season ever. Yet, we had restaurants cancelling our reservations made weeks in advance on the day of the reservation because they didn’t have enough staff to open.
We had a surprising encounter while on the shore at a popular waterfront bar. We stopped in Friday night for a nightcap, ordered drinks from the bartender, paid, and took them to seats on the outdoor deck. We finished them, and as we left, the bartender confronted us and asked if his service was lacking. We said no. He told us we didn’t tip him enough. Now, bartenders are not paid like waitstaff—that is, an hourly wage far below minimum wage with the expectation that patrons will add a gratuity to make up the difference—they are paid an hourly wage based on their experience and skill at or above minimum wage. And we do tip bartenders, just not usually the typical 20% or more that we put on a dinner check to the waitstaff.
We were shocked and embarrassed to be accosted. I pulled out the bills to make a 20% tip to get out of there, feeling angry. He was also angry. Our bartender was working a slow section during a holiday weekend. He wasn’t there to punch a clock for a paycheck. He was there to pull in Fourth-of-July-crowd tips. But he didn’t get much of a crowd, and two of his customers didn’t deliver. So he pushed back. Bad form? You bet. But I think our bartender’s point of view may not be unique in the service industry right now.
Obviously surly service won’t get our bartender far, but his employers need workers badly. And he knows it. And when he doesn’t know if we have been vaccinated (we have), and he is hauling himself in to sling gin until 2 in the morning to strangers who might pass him a deadly virus, he feels his labor is worth more. And it is. He would just be better off making the case to his boss for a raise (or health benefits) than blocking our departure to demand a bigger tip.
Republicans and some economists blame the extended enhanced unemployment benefits in place due to the pandemic. We were in Maryland, which ended them on July 3, the Saturday we were there. But it is more complicated than just the bait-and-switch of staying on the dole.
Popular tourist destinations are expensive places to live. And when they are seasonal, service industry workers leave at the end of the season. Disruption in just about every supply chain has made everything more expensive. So that’s one reason restaurant staff may not be rushing back to take your order: they aren’t even in town.
But I think many restaurant workers are waiting for it to be truly worth their while. Labor is in demand like never before. According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, Santa Fe restaurants are offering signing bonuses for cooks. Starting hourly wages are topping $15 an hour for culinary staff in an Albuquerque brewpub that hasn’t been able to begin food service yet. Nationally, restaurant wages were up 7.9% in June over February numbers. That’s a big increase, fast.
Some of my lefty friends are crowing to me, “See, Merritt? THIS IS THE FREE MARKET.” I agree with them wholeheartedly. The Black Death was the first step to ending rural feudalism in Europe; Covid-19 may finally end America’s lopsided compensation system for front-of-house restaurant staff. And all without a union. Capitalism works when you leave it alone.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and former Navy officer. She appears regularly as a panelist on NM PBS and is a frequent guest on News Radio KKOB. She lives amicably with her Democratic husband and Republican mother north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at email@example.com.