"It's ridiculous," a bartender says. "It's unenforceable."
In the restaurants and saloons of downtown Washington, the proposed tightening of federal income tax rules on tips is not exactly the topic of the day. But when you do get the waiters and waitresses and especially the managers to talk, they seem worried.
Waiters are worried because, according to them, there's not that much money in the business anyway.
"I make around the minimum, $3.95 an hour," says Maggie Bobick at the Black Rooster. "D.C. takes $1.70 for tip allowance, and when you take out all the other stuff, I'm netting about a dollar an hour outside of tips."
Tip allowance is the amount the government already docks waiters' pay in anticipation of tips.
Bobick says tips bring her total to maybe $7 an hour, but then, she only works 25 to 30 hours a week as a day waitress. Like many young people working in local pubs, Bobick is a student, majoring in Russian studies at George Washington University.
"Working days, you have a shorter shift but the tips come faster. At night it's slower, but you make more."
At a much fancier "tablecloth restaurant," the manager worries about the extra bookkeeping chores because his firm is not fully computerized. He fears the changes will cost him more in time and possibly salaries for the additional accounting.
Under the $98.3 billion tax increase bill that House and Senate conferees sent to the floor this week, restaurants not only will have to file a new report showing gross receipts in food and beverage sales, including charge-card receipts and tips, but also will have to report each employe's estimated share of the presumed tip-income level up to 8 percent of the gross receipts. Restaurants that include a service charge of 10 percent or more in the bill, and places employing fewer than 11 persons, are exempt.
"This gets complicated," comments the manager, who doesn't want his name used. "Some places the waiters pool their tips, but we don't. Our waiters fill out a form every day telling how much they made, and they give 15 percent of their tips to the busboys and busgirls. We also have a split-shift differential. We're one of the few unionized places in town. But the point is, the government is asking us to do their work for them."
The average tip in the more expensive restaurants is 15 to 20 percent, he says.
The heart of the problem seems to be just how much waiters and waitresses do in fact make. Proponents of the tax bill say $8 billion in tip income, or 80 percent of the national total, goes unreported every year. They say the bill would bring in $10 billion more over the next three years.
It stands to reason that the bigger the bill, the higher the tip. At Harvey's, a Washington restaurant landmark, a sharp waiter can make $500 a week, according to one source. At Runyon's, a more modest but hip 20th Street spa, assistant manager Skeeter Murphy says a good waiter can walk away with $30 for a five-hour day, which comes to only $180 a week, or $6 an hour, including the $1 net salary. "But what if it's a bad day?" he adds. "You get hit with that tip allowance anyway."
And everyone in the business is keenly aware that the restaurant business is down. One waitress says she averages $48 for a five-day week.
"Credit card tips are absolutely the only way the IRS can get anything out of this," mutters a bartender. "There's just no way they can check out the cash. Even with the cards, the waiters just initial 'em, and half the time you can't read who turned the card in."
At Clyde's, waiter Ben Millrood estimates a night waiter with hustle makes $10 an hour in cash. But many of his young colleagues don't bother to keep accurate accounts.
"Most of them don't know anything about taxes yet. This is really going to put pressure on employes. I think it'll affect the professionals with some years in the business the most. Also bartenders, because even though they work mainly on salary, some of them make quite a bit in tips too."
From E.J. O'Riley's Pub comes this anonymous word: "You can talk to waiters anyplace you want, but you're not gonna get any straight figures from 'em on their tips. They're all gonna come in low for you."
And there is this to think about, from a veteran in the food business:
"Waiters are outside the work system, very few are unionized, and they work short hours without pensions or other things that most of us take for granted. If you're going to bear down on waiters for their taxes, then shouldn't they be getting some benefits too?"