Wage increase could make my job obsolete

Let's not sugarcoat it: The restaurant business is hard work.

As I write this on a Saturday morning, I'm recovering from working a double on Friday and preparing for an equally late night this evening. Anyone who's ever worked as a server understands that handling a weekend rush at a restaurant can feel like the physical equivalent of running a half-marathon.

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But just because the work is hard doesn't mean it's not rewarding. I've been well-compensated in both income and life experience from my time spent working in restaurants. That's why recent rhetoric from labor groups about the "abusive" work environment in restaurants and President’s Obama call for a higher tipped minimum wage don't ring true for me.

I chose to work in the restaurant industry, and for good reason: As a former intern and now a prospective student at American University, I need the scheduling flexibility that comes with industry work. At what other workplace can I have my mornings and afternoons free to read, write, relax and then start my "work day" after 4 pm?

Here's the best part: Instead of waiting for a paycheck every two weeks, I leave the restaurant with cash in hand each night. Last night, I walked out of the Alexandria restaurant where I work with over $230 in tip income. I did the math, and over the course of the month, my pay rate works out to $30- $35 an hour. (I’ve had a similar experience working at restaurants in the District.)

Some servers earn even more than I do; others probably earn a bit less. But the sheer number of people who currently work (or have worked) in the restaurant industry is proof positive that it's far from an abusive place to work. To claim otherwise suggests that all of us are working against our will, night after night, in a job that we can't stand. It's an argument that doesn't hold water. I absolutely love this type of work and the best part about it is that my skills are internationally transferable.

Some--including President Obama--have argued that servers like myself deserve a higher base wage. It's superficially appealing: Even though I already make far more than the minimum wage, who wouldn't want a law passed that gives them even more money? But my time in the industry interacting with customers tells me all I need to know about why this is a bad idea.

When customers look at the menu, the entree description catches their eye first--but the eye-catching entree price isn't far behind. Most customers react negatively to high prices, and especially to price increases. So if my restaurant's labor costs are increased due to a higher minimum wage, I doubt that the customer will want to pay for it on their bill. Instead, restaurants will be forced to trim costs elsewhere--and employees like me are going to shoulder the cost. 

What does that look like? At some restaurants, it could mean fewer job opportunities, as employers move towards a business model that requires fewer employees.  Other employers could follow the European path and eliminate tipping entirely, replacing it with a set service charge on the menu. In either case, I'm worse off than I am presently, because my opportunity to earn tip income falls dramatically.

I empathize with employees who are trying to better the restaurant industry, but I still think they're misguided. Yes, it's hard work when you're employed by a restaurant. But if you don't like the job, I've got an easy solution for you: Get a different one. And stop advocating for new regulations that are going to harm the restaurant employees you're trying to help.

Gborkorquellie is a server at Pizzeria Paradiso in Old Town, Alexandria.