The tipping point

Michelle Singletary
Columnist February 7, 2013

Start talking about restaurant tipping, and you can wind up in a passionate debate. Some people hate being pressured or guilt-tripped to tip at all, especially when the service is mediocre to awful. Others, including many who have worked in the service industry, loathe people who don’t tip or don’t tip enough. It’s part of the pay for restaurant workers they argue.

So, it didn’t surprise me when a recent tipping story spread quickly over the Internet.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

The backstory: The Consumerist reported that St. Louis resident Alois Bell, a pastor at a small church, dined at Applebee’s and balked at paying the automatic 18 percent gratuity for her large party. Bell left these words on the receipt: “I give God 10 percent. Why do you get 18?”

The server who waited on the table showed the customer receipt to fellow server Chelsea Welch. Welch took a picture of the receipt and posted it on Reedit.com. Although Welch said she tried to hide the identity of the customer by providing a false description of Bell, you could make out Bell’s signature quite well in the photo of the receipt. Although Welch later edited the photo of the receipt to obscure Bell’s signature, her original posting had the identifying information. (You can view the original document posted by Welch on www.thesmokinggun.com.)

“I originally posted the note as a lighthearted joke,” Welch said. “I thought the note was insulting, but it was also comical. I posted it to Reddit because I thought other users would find it entertaining.”

The fallout: Online sleuths figured out who the customer was and began attacking her online. Bell found out from a friend that she was being berated. She called Applebee’s and complained.

Applebee’s fired Welch, the Consumerist later reported.

In a statement to Consumerist, Applebee’s explained the action: “Our guests’ personal information – including their meal check – is private, and neither Applebee’s nor its franchisees have a right to share this information publicly.”

In an interview with thesmokinggun.com, Bell apologized for a “lapse in my character and judgment.” She also said her note “brought embarrassment to my church and ministry.” She said she had left a $6 cash tip for the server.

An Applebee’s spokesman said Bell shared appetizers with eight or nine friends and that the cost for the meal came to $34.93, including the tip, which the pastor paid despite the comment she left on the receipt, the Associated Press reported.

“We have to protect our guests’ privacy,” Applebee’s President Mike Archer said in a phone interview with AP. “There’s a lot of private information on those receipts.”

Here’s a Yahoo story that has a video of the pastor who wrote the note.

A petition has been started on Change.org to get Welch her job back. Last time I checked, there were more than 5,700 signatures.

The incident in some context: Other servers have lost their jobs or been reprimanded after posting comments about miserly tippers. In another tipper tantrum episode, a waitress who wanted to get back at a customer who failed to leave a tip on his $28.98 tab had to apologize for her behavior. The waitress used her Facebook page to berate the non-tipper, who had left a scribbled a note on the receipt that said: “You can stand to lose a couple of pounds,” ABC News reported at the time.

The problem was that the waitress blasted the wrong man. She lambasted another man with the same name as the customer who didn’t leave a tip.

In another story, a server got fired after writing an expletive laced post about a customer she felt hadn’t tipped her well enough.

The latest tipping controversy raises a number of issues:

-- Should Welch, who let’s keep in mind didn’t even wait on the pastor’s table, have posted the receipt?

-- Should the server who did wait on the table have allowed her friend to snap a picture of it? (You can’t fault her for showing it to a fellow worker because it was a ridiculous note.)

-- Isn’t this one of the problems of social media -- that people can so quickly post things without thinking of the consequences? (I wonder if Welch now thinks the note was comical enough to lose her job.)

-- Should employees insult customers they don’t like on social media sites?

-- Should employers, as a corporate policy, prohibit workers from posting online comments about the customers they wait on?

-- Was it fair for Applebee’s to fire Welch?

-- Should people be leaving such nasty notes on receipts when they don’t want to tip, or should they, if they have a problem with service, take it up with management?

-- Should restaurants impose an automatic tip, even for large parties and even if they post such policy? Aren’t tips supposed to be freely given?

-- Is it time to do away with the tip system so that the wait staff and customers can avoid such issues?

I’m going to pick just one of the above questions for the Color of Money Question of the Week: Was it fair for Applebee’s to fire Welch? Send your responses to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Put “The Tipping Point” in the subject line. Be sure to include your full name, city and state.

Not that I want to influence your comments, but I think both the pastor and Welch were wrong:

Okay, you don’t like being forced to tip for a large party, but to suggest that the server didn’t deserve more than what one might tithe to her church was just mean-spirited and sanctimonious. Bell should have been ashamed. I’m a penny pincher, and I don’t begrudge servers a fair tip. And while I don’t agree with forcing people to pay an automatic tip, I understand why restaurants have imposed it.

However, Welch had no right to subject Bell to an Internet lashing. Welch says she later tried to remove Bell’s identifying information but it was too late. Bell’s name was already out there. People have a right to do dumb things in private, especially if they are private citizens. A company’s workers should not be disparaging customers. Would you want someone ranting online about behavior you may have displayed during a lapse in good judgment? In this instance, Applebee’s was right to take action against Welch. However, I might not have fired her if she had a good employment record, but I would have at least suspended her. She, too, exercised poor judgment.

I’d like to hear what you think. You can also vote online on whether Applebee was right to fire Welch.

Let’s Talk Live

If you just can’t wait to send an e-mail about the tipping story, join me live today at noon ET. We can talk about tipping or your financial issues. If you’ve gotten out of debt recently, share your freedom story.

If you can’t join the chat live, no problem. Just send in your question early. Or you can read the archive later. Someone may have asked a question similar to your situation.

Perfect Attendance

Zero.

That’s the number of sick days that 64-year-old Deborah Ford took off during her 44 years as a U.S. Postal Service worker.

“You know what we say -- rain, sleet or snow” can’t stop the U.S. mail, Ford told The Detroit Free Press. “And that’s what I live by. I’m coming in.”

Ford said she was able to keep up her perfect attendance record by using vacation time for doctor’s appointments and “shaking it off” whenever she felt lousy.

Ford’s work history literally paid off. She will get a 5 percent increase in her pension for the unused sick-leave balance of 4,508 hours.

Certainly there is nothing wrong with taking the sick leave you’re entitled to take. And, frankly, during flu season, more people should stay home rather than coming into the office and infecting others. But I still admire Ford’s worth ethic.

2013 Tax Season

Ann Carrns had an interesting story in the New York Times about an online matchmaking site for people looking for a tax preparer.

As Carrns writes: “The traditional way to find a tax preparer is to ask your friends and family for a recommendation. But what if you don’t want to go the word-of-mouth route — and risk ending up with your eccentric second cousin doing your taxes (or your ignorant but well-meaning friend’s idea of a good accountant)?”

Well, it appears an accountant has come up with a way to match customer to preparer. Carrns reports that Prosado.com has signed up about 400 tax preparers in more than 40 states. If you’re looking for a preparer, read more about how the service works. If it works for you, let me know.

The Sandwich Generation

A recent study by Pew Research Center found that middle-aged Americans are caught in the middle of financially taking care of their grown children and emotionally supporting their aging parents.

“The twin financial and emotional burdens on the one in seven Americans who are squeezed between their children and their parents have mounted since the recession,” reports the Post’s Carol Morello.

Nearly half of adults in their 40s and 50s have a parent age 65 or older and are either raising a young child or financially supporting a grown child, according to the Pew survey. “The difficulty [in] young adults finding decent employment and the longer time they take to get the education they need” adds to the trend, said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University who studies families. “Until we figure out how to integrate young adults into the economy, their parents will be called upon to support them.”

The added financial burden is also forcing many parents to take money from their retirement accounts prematurely, adds Lynn Feinberg, a caregiving specialist for AARP.

Part of the problem of adult children coming back home is a tough economy. But it could also be that many young adults aren’t seeking college degrees that make them valuable in the current job market, reports Melinda Henneberger, a Washington Post political reporter who anchors the She the People blog.

Henneberger profiles an all-girls high school in Maryland that is “retrofitting its curriculum for a time in which a college diploma is no longer an automatic admission ticket to a profession, or even a well-paying job.”

Says Sister Ellen Marie Hagar, president of Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg: “The gnawing feeling I can’t get away from, is that when working-class families fork over $12,000 a year for tuition, there’s something immoral about watching their daughters head off to earn ‘psych degrees,’ and then wind up with fat loans and back home in a job at the Olive Garden. I can’t live with that.”

As Henneberger reports, the data backs up Hager: “A Rutgers University survey last year found only 51 percent of recent college graduates working full-time and just four in 10 in a job that required a college degree. One in four said they were living with relatives.”

Seton is trying to make sure that its students are as prepared as possible to major in engineering, computer sciences, pharmacology and other fields in which unemployment is very low and women are in particularly short supply, Henneberger writes.

“If we’re going to compete globally in the way our president’s always talking about, we’ve got to listen to Sister Ellen Marie, who doesn’t sugar-coat where the jobs are not: ‘If I have one more girl tell me she wants to go into communications, I think I’m going to scream.’”

What do you think? Are you screaming because you’re still tied financially to your college graduate son or daughter? Send your responses to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Put “The Sandwich Generation” in the subject line. Be sure to include your full name, city and state.

Family Financial Fights

In your family, are you the person everyone comes to when their money is funny and they need financial help?

And do you say yes when you can only afford to say no?

I’ve started a regular feature to help people mired in family financial fights. Tell me your story, and I may be able to help. Send your story to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Put “Family Financial Fights” in the subject line, and be sure to include your full name, city and state.

Love and Money

For last week’s Color of Money question, I asked: “What was the best Valentine’s Day gift you ever received?”

I was trying to coax you into telling me about a gift that didn’t come from a store. But, alas, nobody took the bait.

So, I’ll tell you my best Valentine’s Day gift. They were love notes. My husband wrote out the things he loves about me the most. Best. Gift. Ever.

Tia Lewis contributed to this report.

You are welcome to e-mail comments and questions to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name and hometown; your comments may be used in a future column or newsletter unless otherwise requested.

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