Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Bussers, Busboys and Busgirls

Image: Three T.G.I Fridays bussers. Source: the internet.
Over the past few years I have been lucky enough to spend a total of five months ‘living’ in New York City and travelling through other parts of America. I have lost count of the number of restaurant and café meals I have eaten during that time – not that I was keeping score – but it was a lot. More than a lot in fact. If there was one element of eating out that I never quite got a handle on, it was the concept of the busboy, although nowadays, the term busboy or busgirl has become desexed, and the generic term busser, is used instead.

According to Wikipedia, busser, busboy or busgirl are terms used in the United States for someone that works in the restaurant and catering industry assisting the waiting staff (that is, waiters and waitresses).

But what exactly does the busser do?

This apparently depends on the size of the restaurant, but generally if you are eating out in America, the busser is the person who brings water to your table, and keeps your glass topped up throughout your meal. They may also bring out the bread and other pre-dinner snacks, although your waiter/waitress will always be the person to serve your meal.

In a busy restaurant, the busser may also be responsible for all assistant activities in the dining hall like resetting tables, clearing away dirty dishes and cleaning up spilled items, shining cutlery, restocking waiter stations with water, bread and/or orange juice, etc. In smaller restaurants where there aren't a lot of employees, they may do additional duties in the kitchen like washing dishes, restocking, and taking out the trash.

One other aspect of eating out in America that confuses and stresses many international travelers is the practice of tipping. While I was a lot more familiar with the protocols of restaurant tipping on my 2010 visit to the US (than I was on my first visit in 2008), I was still confused about how tipping worked vis-à-vis the busser’s. That is, I knew that busser’s were not tipped separately from wait staff, but if waiter/waitresses rely so much on tips to supplement their minimum wages, how are the lowly busser’s meant to supplement their wages?

In researching this question online I was surprised (to say the least), to learn that busser’s are in fact paid from the total pool of tips that accumulates during a restaurant shift.

In effect, busser’s receive a percentage of the tips that wait staff are tipped! I don’t know if there is an accepted percentage at play here, or if the amount of money the busser’s are ‘tipped’ is at the discretion of the waiters, but clearly the concept of tipping in America becomes much more serious when you realize your 15 percent gratuity is being divided up between wait staff and busser’s.

Some Well Known Former Busboys
Image: Collage of famous former bus boys (bussers)
Among a list of former bussers on Wikipedia, I was surprised to see some very famous and well known faces. These include the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.; and Jon Stewart, comedian, and host of The Daily Show (who has named his production company Busboy Productions). Then there are Langston Hughes (dubbed the "busboy poet"); Huey Morgan, musician; Dick Cavett, actor and host of The Dick Cavett Show; and the actors Johnny Depp, Alec Baldwin, Robert Downey Jr., Jake Gyllenhaal, Andy Kaufman, and Al Pacino. Finally, Richard Feynman, American physicist and Nobel Laureate, worked as a busboy in his aunt's restaurant in New York in the 1930s; and Ho Chi Minh, Vietnamese revolutionary and President, was a busboy in Boston at the Parker House Hotel.

Pay Rates: Wait Staff Vs. Busser
Just when you begin to think the busser is at the bottom of the restaurant pecking order, you learn that busser’s – as employees – are in fact paid more than wait staff.

But how can this be possible? The answer lies in America’s labor laws.

In a January 2009 article published in the online edition of the Wall Street Journal and headlined, If a Half-Eaten Burrito Lingers, There May Be No Busboy to Blame, Janet Adamy writes: In many states, it's cheaper to keep servers [i.e., wait staff] on the clock than bussers because of a loophole that allows restaurants to pay servers who earn tips less than the minimum wage -- as little as $2.13 an hour. Bussers must be paid at least $6.55 an hour.

Interestingly, while Seek dot Com, 'Australia's #1 job site' did not list positions for bussers/bus boys anywhere across Australia when I searched the site, it did list dozens of jobs for male and female wait staff with wages that would make most American wait staff faint. For example, one ad from Dell Ugo's New Farm, in Brisbane had wait staff salaries ranging from AUD$15 - $24.99 per hour.

Of course, Australian wages for wait staff are much higher because waiters don’t rely on tips to make a living wage. Any tips they get are a bonus received for providing a genuinely great service throughout the dining experience.

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