What Applebee’s Receipt Saga Reveals About Workers’ Rights

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.