The winter months are hard for the service industry. Here it is February, and the shining light of spring can’t come soon enough. One restaurant owner once told me that we were lucky to have large city events during those normally dead summer holiday weekends. He failed to mention the doldrums that accompany January through March. No server or bartender looks forward to that uncertain time.
For those not currently working in the industry, those with a steady 9-5, paycheck, benefits, 401k and weekends off, it might seem perplexing that straits are dire for those who work just to get by.
I get it: We all “work just to get by.”
But as with any job, you’d best believe there are some disadvantages that come with the service industry. For instance, the federal standard of wages for tipped employees is $2.13 an hour. That’s the standard server wage. I do see some get paid more by owners, bartenders mainly — anywhere from $4 to $6 an hour. The rest comes from tips.
If the server doesn’t meet the threshold of the federal minimum wage with tips, the business owner is required to cover that gap. Most servers meet it, and that’s why the current system is advantageous to owners in the service industry.
“So, what about back of house? They get a steady wage, they’re fine, right?” Nope. Already sparse hours get cut due to the slowdown, leaving the same crowding for hours as the front of house. Some places just shut down because business is so slow. It’s a woven chain that extends through all aspects of the business.
And that’s it. No 401k. No insurance. No safety net except that which you make for yourself.
Most servers get a paycheck every two weeks with a fat zero in the “amount owed” line. A lot of us get paychecks, so I don’t have to explain the fees taken out, Render unto Caesar, and all that. So, what happens in January and February? What do you think?
The holidays come and go, and all we’re left with is the lingering sugar rush of its merrymaking. January kicks down your door and brings its baggage along. Existential dread and guilt give way to resolutions, motivations and discipline.
How many of you renewed a stagnant gym membership or quit drinking? Wagons are at capacity with newly formed teetotalers. Good for them.
In January and February, a warm home becomes suddenly more inviting now that the relatives aren’t popping in every couple of weeks. Shows are binged, movies rented. The Great Hunkering Down has begun. And those of us who rely on cabin fever are abruptly taking a pay cut.
The service industry takes a nosedive during those months. With that lack of income comes the inevitable jockeying for shifts. In June, a simple group text won’t get the slightest response, but now everyone’s greedy for hours.
I’ve seen the United Nations act with less diplomacy than a restaurant in late January. “The gas bill has to be paid by 5pm today.” “The power will be shut off tomorrow if I don’t work this shift.” “My car insurance is going to lapse, and I need to make at least 48 bucks tonight.” “I’ll have to kite this check but what else can I do?” With it comes depression, a healthy amount of fear and, finally, acceptance — that this is just the way things are, and you’ll be damned if it’s going to be like this next year.
There are bright spots, granted. Valentine’s Day is an oasis in the cold, brambly halls of the service industry. It’s a nice boost that reminds you that this malady is only temporary.
Even with all this malaise and doom, it’s still a job — an honorable one, in an industry that is hiring in virtually every single city in the entire world. But towards the end of February, it feels like it’s always been this way. You accept your fate: the slow Tuesdays, the barely perceptible twitching of an eye as someone realizes she only made 50 bucks tonight. The slog, week after week.
And then… March arrives, shiny and fresh, promising the joy and wonders of Mardi Gras and St. Pats. That’s the turning point for most of us.
March is when things aren’t as bleak. People start venturing out. Days get longer, warmer, evenings more tolerable. March is when people accept that some resolutions are made to be broken, and if so, “Hey, here comes Lent!” It’s when the money starts flowing again, and spirits rise. And then, it’s like the cold months are merely a bad dream, barely remembered, it’s warnings unheeded.
In a couple months, we’ll start to complain about how busy we are.
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