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I know I’m late to the party on this, but I wanted to post something about the situation that unfolded at a St. Louis Applebee’s recently that shows just how vulnerable workers are, and how little recourse nonunion workers have when something goes wrong.

Many of you know the story already, but here’s a summary: A pastor named Alois Bell dined out with a large group at an Applebee’s in St. Louis. When it came time to pay, she saw on the receipt that the restaurant automatically added 18 percent gratuity. Instead of leaving a tip, Pastor Bell wrote on the receipt “I give God 10%, why do you get 18?” On the signature line, she clearly wrote “Pastor Alois Bell.”

Then, a different waitress, Chelsea Welch, took a picture of the receipt and posted it on Reddit, where it quickly went viral. Pastor Bell was alerted to it by friends and called the Applebee’s to alert them. Applebee’s then fired Chelsea Welch.

I’ll first acknowledge the customer and the employer’s perspective. Pastor Bell was certainly embarrassed that her receipt was shown to the whole Internet.  Applebee’s, commenting on the story, responded that their official employee handbook states the following:

Employees must honor the privacy rights of APPLEBEE’s and its employees by seeking permission before writing about or displaying internal APPLEBEE’S happenings that might be considered to be a breach of privacy and confidentiality. This shall include, but not be limited to, posting of photographs…Employees who violate this policy will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment.
Pastor Bell has a right to be upset, and legally, Applebee’s is within their rights to fire Chelsea.

That said, this story demonstrates the monstrous power imbalance between customers, employers, and tipped workers.

Applebee’s adds an 18 percent gratuity to parties larger than 8 people. This is a pretty common policy in restaurants, and Bells’ server had nothing to do with it. “I cannot control that kind of tip,” Chelsea wrote in the Guardian, “it’s done by a computer that the orders are put into.”

But as Bell’s actions show, this kind of policy is nearly impossible to enforce – all she had to do was cross it out and pay a smaller amount.  And as any server will tell you, customers can tip whatever amount they want, for whatever reason pops into their heard, and there’s nothing the server can do about it or the restaurant can do about it. Walking in for a shift, all a server knows for sure about what she’s taking home is their very low hourly wage – $3.50 in Chelsea and her coworkers’ case, but as low as $2.13 in many states.  “I’ve been stiffed on tips before,” Chelsea wrote, “but this is the first time I’ve seen the ‘Big Man’ used as reasoning.”

When it comes to recourse for the customer, however, action is swift and decisive. According to Chelsea’s account:

The person who wrote the note came across an article about it, called the Applebee’s location, and demanded everyone be fired — me, the server who allowed me to take the picture, the manager on duty at the time, the manager not on duty at the time, everyone. It seems I was fired not because Applebee’s was represented poorly, not because I did anything illegal or against company policy, but because I embarrassed this person.
Applebee’s may have fired Chelsea because she violated company policy, or because she embarrassed a customer. The thing is, it doesn’t matter. More than 93 percent of workers don’t have a union on the job, and without that protection Applebee’s can Chelsea or her coworkers for any reason – or no reason at all.

Whether or not you think Pastor Bell was wrong to stiff her server isn’t the issue. The issue is that this happens all the time, all over the country, largely unnoticed. Most tipped workers are paid very little, rarely given paid sick days, even more rarely given health insurance, can get fired at any time for any reason, and on top of that their income is completely at the discretion of customers like Alois Bell. Bell apparently disagreed with Applebee’s gratuity policy – but Bell is still employed, and Applebee’s still stands.

When workers have a union, they have a means of recourse for termination, a way to negotiate for better pay and benefits, and way to handle these kinds of situations when they arise. There’s a lot to say about this Applebee’s saga, but that might be the most important thing to take away.

by David Wehde - Reposted from Working America's Main Street Blog.

You can follow David's workplace advice column on Twitter at @DearDavidWA.

Originally posted to Working America on Thu Feb 07, 2013 at 03:15 PM PST.

Also republished by In Support of Labor and Unions.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Delighted to see this incident (10+ / 0-)

    not just going away--thanks.

    It's here they got the range/ and the machinery for change/ and it's here they got the spiritual thirst. --Leonard Cohen

    by karmsy on Thu Feb 07, 2013 at 03:20:43 PM PST

  •  A union would have been nice. (4+ / 0-)

    And hopefully would have agreed that her firing was the right thing to do.

    Boehner Just Wants Wife To Listen, Not Come Up With Alternative Debt-Reduction Ideas

    by dov12348 on Thu Feb 07, 2013 at 03:24:00 PM PST

  •  to me it proves (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    a2nite

    that employees are thought of as just that, employees, but large companies.

    it is that treatment that motivates hundreds of thousands of americans every year to start their own business every year and be their own boss. not just service workers, but accountants, lawyers, engineers, computer programmers etc.

    companies like Applebees likes to sell a "family atmosphere" to new employees, but just like 95% of other companies, it's a marketing tactic. Most people are replaceable in their jobs, a company could fire me and find someone else to replace me within a week. The problem is companies realize this, many workers do not.

    Everyone, especially low wage service workers, need to remember that their server job should be treated as a step, not a career.

    I know many people don't have options, be it for social, economic or educational reasons.

    •  Many accountants... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      a2nite, Cassandra Waites

      engineers, computer programmers and even lawyers find out later in their career that the only place they are wanted is in retail.

      'Guns don't kill people, video games do - paraphrased from Lamar Alexander (Sen-R-TN)'

      by RichM on Thu Feb 07, 2013 at 04:04:27 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  The thing is, even if circumstances permitted, it (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Odysseus, Cassandra Waites, abouja, a2nite

      would make no economic sense for everyone to start their own business and be their own boss.  A modern economy could not function (at least as far as I can imagine) if comprised by nothing but one person companies.  Some people need to be employees, and for that reason, it makes a lot more sense to set livable conditions for employees  than to encourage everyone to start their own business.  I'm not criticising the idea of entrepreneurship--it's right for some, and it's one of the engines of economic growth.  But, it's not right for everyone, and even the smallest businesses reach a point where they need to hire someone.  And those workers need to be treated as human beings providing a valuable service. As Working America points out, this case illustrates the truly monstrous imbalance of power between many employers and their employees.  

  •  Someday there will be a controversy (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    a2nite

    about the culture that says that anyone with a camera phone can post anything about you, wherever you are, whatever you're doing, to facebook, youtube, People of Walmart, or to anything they want. Not to say that the Pastor here was anything but a cheapskate. But there's something amiss when the act of the public internet posting is automatically taken as something that doesn't require even a second look.

    But I suppose that's not for today.

    •  But today as we speak that the same Facebook and (8+ / 0-)

      employers and WalMart and YouTube can and DO catalogue our every single click... they can put tracking cookies on OUR computers... and trace and read our emails and tweets and web presence ... without permission from us.

      They decide what we see on webpages and what headlines we read by their tracking and cataloguing.

      They decide our value by spying on us without our permission.

      And you think it's too much when we openly return the favor?

      A healthy open society has nothing to fear from examination.


      One may live without bread, but not without roses.
      ~Jean Richepin
      Bread & Roses

      by bronte17 on Thu Feb 07, 2013 at 04:27:53 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Tipped & rec'ed, I hope Chelsea gets another job (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    OldDragon, MKSinSA

    This is another mission accomplished by the evil Rs on behalf of their corporate masters. We have no economic security in this country to make the evil greedy rich people happy.

    This is about putting a jack boot on a persons neck because someone can. All I can do is support businesses that treat their workers like human beings and not chattel. We don't treat our workers like this, but we aren't evil.

    America= land of slavery as long as it is called something else.

    •  what people don't see is that (3+ / 0-)

      it can go both ways.

      Are you really good at your job? threaten to leave, get a raise, take a new job with better benefits, start your company company and compete.

      Good servers can move from applebees to a upscale restaurant easily, 2 weeks notice and you're getting triple the tips for the same work.

      companies screw over workers for a variety of reasons. even without a union, employees have some leverage as well.

      not saying what applebees did is right, cause it's not, or that the playing field is even, cause it's not, just that america is not the "land of slavery" some people make it out to be.

  •  A union would have made no difference here (6+ / 0-)

    She violated a stated policy, and in that policy, it also states that the consequences can be termination.   Even in  union situation, that's a "for cause" termination.

    Generally, unions don't mean an employer has no right to fire employees that violate company policies.  

  •  "A pastor". And I'm a fucking astronaut. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jan4insight, BlackSheep1

    Just one more anti-worker establishment I'll never frequent again.

    Money doesn't talk it swears.

    by Coss on Thu Feb 07, 2013 at 04:25:10 PM PST

  •  I think Pastor Bell (5+ / 0-)

    is not very Christian. Or much of anything that resembles compassionate, for that matter.

    •  I think this 'pastor' got exactly what SHE (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      marina, a2nite

      deserved out of this: the whole world now knows what a complete lack of charity inhabits her heart.

      LBJ, Lady Bird, Anne Richards, Barbara Jordan, Sully Sullenberger, Ike, Drew Brees, Molly Ivins --Texas is no Bush league! -7.50,-5.59

      by BlackSheep1 on Thu Feb 07, 2013 at 10:25:57 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  "don't embarrass customers even if they (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    coffeetalk, a2nite, Victor Ward

    deserve it." seems pretty fucking obvious.

    •  and: if anything, you're setting unions *back* (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Victor Ward

      by supporting the waitress.  she clearly should've been fired, and along comes the dipshitty, pompous union guy to tell us that, if she's going to get fired at least it should cost the employer a bucket of money so that she can get whatever level of due process you think she's entitled to.

      this is why people oppose unions: unions support jackasses.

      •  Let the "dipshitty pompous union guy" have a word (3+ / 0-)

        First - while I'm certainly a union supporter, I'm actually not a union member. I'm (dreaded) management! I'm the Organizing Director at Working America, and I also write a workplace advice column called "Dear David." You can find more of my work here: http://workingamerica.org/...

        Second, and more to your point - I did my best to acknowledge that both Pastor Bell and Applebee's were well within their legal rights to do what they did.

        With union protection, would Chelsea still have been fired? Quite possibly. But there would have been some sort of process to determine what exactly happened, rather than an instantaneous dismissal.

        As we know, there are thousands of other "Chelsea Welch's" fired every day for much less: wearing makeup, not wearing makeup, showing up 5 minutes late, showing up early...they have no recourse. Meanwhile, the customer can punish servers for the actions of the restaurant (the included gratuity). Time after time, only the servers suffer.

        Service workers face terrible conditions; conditions unheard of in other sectors. If anything comes out of this incident, I hope that does.

        -David

        •  To add on to this, (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          a2nite, Dirtandiron

          unions often implement "second chance" policies that protect workers from losing their job over one issue.  So if Chelsea had been part of a union, then she, her union rep, and management could have had a sitdown chat and see if there was any way they could come to an agreement.

          Instead, you get another case of a customer treating an employee like a piece of garbage, and when that employee stands up for themselves in the slightest way, the customer demands their blood, and the employer offers up the employee as a sacrifice.  Employers who DO NOT stand up to customers are part of the problem, too.  And part of that is because they see their own employees as replaceable chattel, even though they constantly harp on those employees to produce more for less pay.  So instead of pissing off one woman who embarrassed herself in the eyes of God (and was just upset that everyone else saw it too,), they fire a waitress and waste who knows how much time and money interviewing, hiring, and training her replacement.

          "I don't want a unicorn. I want a fucking pegasus. And I want it to carry a flaming sword." -mahakali overdrive

          by Silvia Nightshade on Fri Feb 08, 2013 at 10:27:06 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

      •  Question: (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        a2nite, Dirtandiron

        do you belong to a union?  Have you ever belonged to a union?  Because my mother and younger brother are BOTH in unions, and let me tell you, the union will not protect you if you're clearly violating [company] policies or being a jackass.  Their unions have made this very clear to them.  In fact, there is an issue right now where my mom works, where an office assisant applied for and was promoted to a position within the IT department as a business process analyst for datawarehousing.  He didn't meet the minimum qualifications; he lied.  He has two friends in IT who told him how to answer the questions in the interview because they wrote the questions for the interview.  The union?  They're furious, and the guy isn't going to keep his job when his 90-day probationary period is up.  The other two guys who helped are in some hot water with the union.

        So unions aren't the enemy here.  But thank you for your englightening perspective as to why people hate unions.  You may find your message more well received at such websites as Redstate or Free Republic.

        "I don't want a unicorn. I want a fucking pegasus. And I want it to carry a flaming sword." -mahakali overdrive

        by Silvia Nightshade on Fri Feb 08, 2013 at 10:32:12 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Wurster is a troll. n/t (0+ / 0-)

        Where are all the jobs, Boehner?

        by Dirtandiron on Sat Feb 09, 2013 at 05:34:52 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  So it's ok (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Silvia Nightshade

      that workers in service jobs like this one have no right to expect to be treated with dignity and respect?

      Why SHOULDN'T there be consequences if the customer refuses to even treat you like a human being?

      In fact, I would argue that expecting the employees in these jobs to essentially just shut up and take the abuse from certain customers implies that they are somehow subhuman compared to said customers.

      Unless you don't think, as I do, that human beings are entitled to a certain minimum level of respect.

      •  respect doesn't equal tips (0+ / 0-)

        under any law.

        mocking customers in a service job is always grounds for termination.

        that's why they call it "service".

        •  You're right (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          a2nite

          that respect doesn't equal tips.

          But we're not talking about simply stiffing a server on a tip.  If she just hadn't tipped that would be one thing.  But frankly, the customer insulted the employee with what she wrote on there.

          Why should it be ok to force employees to have to put up with abuse from customers?

  •  Was it legal to fire her? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jan4insight

    She posted a picture of the receipt of a customer that her coworker waited on. If her intent in doing so was, at least in part, to call attention to their working conditions, then it's concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act (though posting a customer's receipt might be serious enough misconduct that it looses protection).

    I'm not sure if I buy it, but there's at least a colorable argument there.

    •  Based on what is in the diary (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Victor Ward

      she violated company policy and could be terminated.

      "let's talk about that"

      by VClib on Thu Feb 07, 2013 at 10:32:39 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  That's not the issue (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        a2nite

        It doesn't matter if she violated company, what matters is (a) was she engaged in protected activity, and (b) if so, was her misconduct serious enough that she looses protection under the NLRA?

        It's not as simple as "she broke the rules." The NLRB General Counsel has taken the position that employees have the right to discuss workplace complaints on Facebook, so it really comes down to whether she looses protection. I'm not up to date on NLRB case law on loss of protection, so I'm not sure about the answer.

        •  ggrzw - I think posting a customer receipt (0+ / 0-)

          on Facebook that had a comment regarding an 18% automatic tip is hardly a "workplace issue" as defined by the NLRB. The pastor is a jerk, but the woman who put the document on Facebook violated company policy and her employer had every right to terminate her.

          "let's talk about that"

          by VClib on Fri Feb 08, 2013 at 05:27:22 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Are you a labor lawyer? (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            a2nite

            Because I am.

            If you disagree with me based on your reading of Board precedent on interference with unrepresented employees' section 7 rights, then I'm happy to have a discussion with you. But it doesn't sound like that's the case, in which case, I don't see much point in debating the issue with you.

  •  First time I heard of this incident. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BlackSheep1, Silvia Nightshade

    It's quite repulsive.  She pays 10% to God?

    Isn't that a crock.  I think she meant that she only gets 10% working for God, so why should you, a waitress, get 18%.

    I truly hope this pastor starts getting notes in her offering box saying the same thing.  

    What a craven woman.

  •  Thought on this (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Victor Ward

    First, I think Pastor Bell had the wrong answer to WWJD. If she opposed the policy she should have gone to the manager. Stiffing the server is not very Christian.

    Second, 18% is a little much. I could agree with 15% for typical service as a casual restaurant.

    Finally, as an employer at a small business, I have to say that the waitress who took the photo and posted it did go against the company's policy. I'm not sure it was a firing offense, but she did need to be disciplined. As an employer I can't stand by if my employees spread my business's business all over the internet when they've been told not to.

    •  If the waitress (0+ / 0-)

      is telling the truth, this policy is listed nowhere in the employee handbook.

      She's also repeatedly said that she tried to take every precaution to crop out any identifying info about the customer, and THOUGHT she had done so with the signature as well.

      •  what the waitress is really saying: (0+ / 0-)

        "i'm trying to cover my ass by denying knowledge of the policies, and even if I did violate the policies, I still tried to do it in the nicest way possible"

        that usually doesn't (and shouldn't) fly in any company. i'd fire her too.

        •  How do you know that, though? (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          a2nite

          How do you know the company isn't really saying "this is making us look bad, so we're going to say a policy exists that doesn't"?

          Unless you've seen the Applebee's employee handbook, I don't see how you can say for certain that the waitress is the one lying here.  And I don't see why the company should automatically get the benefit of the doubt over the former employee.

  •  Workers have few rights to answer your title (0+ / 0-)

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