Judging from the letters I received responding to my tirade against tipping, I may not be too welcome at some local establishments. There are many service workers who feel entitled to our tips and resent it when customers choose not to leave a gratuity.

Here's a sampling of my mail:

"My income is based solely on the tips that I earn. My hourly 'salary' is $2.77. I don't know of anyone that could earn a decent living with just that as an income. . . . Most people do not realize that some of their expectations (at least in restaurants) are unrealistic. You talk about anxiety over tipping, but it's nothing compared to being blamed for things over which you have little or no control."

"First of all I only make $2.38 an hour, so tips are my livelihood. You think I enjoy pouring your drink, answering stupid questions about the menu and adjusting the menu to your little whims for a paltry $2.38? I give good service and it hurts when the customer compliments you and leaves a buck or two on a check."

"A hotel pays me $5.25 an hour to carry bags, hail cabs, answer 1,000 and one stupid questions, and basically kiss the public's ass. 'Thank you' won't keep me off welfare. If I carried your bag to your room and treated you in a pleasant, professional manner, you owe me a TIP."

To some extent, these guys are right. Without our tips, servers would be underpaid. But the contention of many that they don't make a minimum wage isn't quite true.

Back in 1967, Congress passed legislation giving restaurant operators the ability to count tips as part of their employees' hourly wages, according to the National Restaurant Association. Restaurant owners argued that their employees receive a substantial portion of their pay via tips, so the owners should be allowed to take that into consideration and pay less than minimum wage.

So, the way the federal law works, wait staff's minimum wage, which is a percentage of the minimum hourly wage, currently works out to $2.13 an hour. If a server's hourly tips, when added to wages, doesn't add up to the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, the employer must make up the difference. Some states have opted out of the federal law and require restaurant owners to pay varying percentages of their own minimum wage.

In Maryland, for example, the minimum pay for servers is only $2.38 an hour instead of the $3.02. But if workers don't earn at least $2.77 an hour in tips, their employer must chip in until hourly pay equals $5.15.

Some states now require restaurateurs to pay service workers a minimum hourly wage regardless of the tips they earn. In Oregon, servers get a minimum $6.50 an hour and they get to keep their tips.

One nationwide survey of 300 restaurant operators showed that entry-level servers earn a median of $9 an hour in tips and receive wages of $2.65 from their employers, for a total hourly pay of $11.65, according to the National Restaurant Association, which conducted the survey. More experienced servers earn a median of $12 an hour in tips and a wage of $3, totaling $15 an hour.

In their defense, some restaurant operators say that even when they have tried to switch to a service charge and eliminate tipping, their waiters and waitresses have rejected the idea.

I know why. On average, consumers leave a tip regardless of the service they receive because they often feel sorry for the low wages servers get.

"People tip for social approval, and those social pressures to tip is so great that it undermines tipping's role as an incentive or reward for service," said Michael Lynn, an associate professor of consumer behavior and marketing at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Hello? I was under the impression that a gratuity was supposed to be a gift to reward excellent service--not an institutionalized obligation to supplement workers' wages.

Take restaurant proprietors in Texas, for example. They're allowed to pay their wait staff a minimum hourly wage of $1.68. That's not even enough for one Happy Meal. If they want to eat, they'd better collect some tips.

Talk about a good deal. Across the country, it's clear the industry has cut itself a sweet deal. The owners essentially profit from our generosity.

I know business owners will cry that if they had to pay higher wages many of them would go out of business. Or they'd have to raise their prices and none of us would eat out anymore. Or those wage increases would spark inflation and the whole economy would tank.

Well, they're right that some of them might go out of business. And I don't want that. But it makes me angry that every time I leave my 15 percent, I'm contributing to a kind of corporate welfare system--I pay my bill and part of theirs, too. I'd prefer to save my money to reward truly great service.

I like the attitude of Paul C. Paz, president of the National Waiters Association, a professional group based in Oregon.

"I have never, never expected a tip," said Paz, who has been a waiter for 19 years. "Customers don't owe us tips. What I think is we should get a base salary and beyond that it's up to me to earn a tip, because when it comes down to it, I get paid to be nice to people. What a great job."

Now, that's a server I wouldn't mind tipping.

Experience Pays

Servers with experience are estimated to earn about 29 percent more than entry-level servers, according to a recent nationwide survey of 300 restaurant operators.

Entry-level servers

$11.65 total

Hourly wages*

$2.65

Tips

$9

More experienced servers

$15 total

Hourly wages*

$3

Tips

$12

*Paid by employer

SOURCE: National Restaurant Association

Making Up the Tip-Credit Gap

While some states require restaurants to pay the minimum wage and allow employees to keep their tips, the wage laws vary across the country. Here's a sampling:

State

Hourly cash wage

Tip credit

Minimum hourly wage

Federal

$2.13

$3.02

$5.15 an hour

District

$2.77

$3.38

Must be $1 above federal minimum wage ($6.15)

Maryland

$2.38

$2.77

Tied to federal minimum wage ($5.15)

Virginia

$2.13

Federal guidelines suggested*

Tied to federal minimum wage** ($5.15)

California

$5.75

None

$5.75

Massachusetts

$2.63

$2.62

$5.25

North Carolina

$2.13

$2.12

$4.25**

Oregon

$6.50

None

$6.50

Texas

$1.68

$1.67

$3.35**

West Virginia

$4.12

$1.03

$5.15**

NOTE: Cash wage is the minimum employers are required to pay; that plus the tip credit must equal the state's minimum wage; if it doesn't, the employer must make up the difference; data is as of April 21.

*The Virginia attorney general has been asked to clarify the Virginia law; until that occurs, restaurateurs are advised to follow federal guidelines.

**Exempts those covered by Fair Labor Standards Act

SOURCE: National Restaurant Association