Ask The Salty Waitress: What’s the deal with my bill’s “employee benefit” surcharge?

Photo: nicoletaionescu (iStock), Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio
The Salty WaitressThe Salty WaitressSalty Waitress is The Takeout’s advice column from a real-life waitress that will teach you how not to behave like a garbage person while dining out—and maybe in real life.

Dear Salty Waitress, I was recently dining out at a restaurant in the Mall of America. When the check came the total was $95. This included eight bucks and change of tax and a $2.50 employee benefits surcharge. I kind of scratched my head. Certainly I believe servers need employee benefits, but why is it listed separately? And how do I figure the tip? Should I figure the tip on the price of the items ordered, the items ordered plus tax, or the items ordered plus tax plus the employee benefits surcharge?

Sincerely,
Scratching My Head

Dear Scratching,

Ah yes, this is definitely a thing now, and one that customers may see even more of in the future. Before I get into the details of your question though, here’s a Salty Stamp Of Approval to you for not griping about this charge. Hey, the dishwashers and servers and cooks of the world deserve benefits, too, and I’ll shout that from whatever rooftop I can find.

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Now, why is it a separate line item? Two main reasons. One, the restaurant wants you to know that it’s doing right by its workers. Maybe that endears them to some customers and makes people feel more positively about eating there. It’s showing off, plain and simple. In this case though, I’m all for showing off if it gets the public to think more about the often tough state of pay and benefits for restaurant workers. It might even get other restaurants to offer such benefits if they see it’s something customers don’t mind ponying up for. (While we’re on the subject, consider this: 30% of all private-sector workers don’t get paid sick leave, even though studies show paid sick leave reduces worker turnover. Hello, restaurant owners, are you listening?)

Sorry, let’s get back on track here. The second reason restaurants list this separately is because they don’t want to raise menu prices across the board to pay for the employee benefits. That makes sense, too: If customers saw that restaurant’s burger was more expensive than other burgers, but didn’t know that the premium pays for employee benefits, maybe they’d be less willing to pay the higher price. They might take their business to the restaurant down the food court aisle with cheaper burgers.

So, to your question about tipping—my commenters’ favorite subject, I know!—I actually don’t think it makes too much difference whether you tip on the total with or without the surcharge. I’ve advised readers to tip post-tax, but whether you add in the other surcharge is a difference of only 50 cents if you tip 20% on a $95 tab. Whatever makes you feel better won’t keep me up at night.


Got a question about dining out etiquette? Or just a general question about life we can help you with? Email us: salty@thetakeout.com

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