Discover more from Eric Zorn: The Picayune Sentinel
Correspondence on tipping, Twitter, 'TTW and more
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Eric Zorn is a former opinion columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Find a longer bio and contact information here. This issue exceeds in size the maximum length for a standard email. To read the entire issue in your browser, click on the headline link above. Paid subscribers receive each Picayune Plus in their email inbox each Tuesday, are part of our civil and productive commenting community and enjoy the sublime satisfaction of supporting this enterprise.
The first live public recording of “The Mincing Rascals” podcast in more than two years will be tonight (Tuesday, Sept. 26) from 6-8 p.m. at The Second City’s “Up” comedy venue, 230 W. North Ave. in the city’s Old Town neighborhood. Come mingle with WGN-AM’s John Williams and panel regulars Austin Berg, Brandon Pope, Jon Hansen and me. Ticket info is here.
Notes and comments from readers —lightly edited —- along with my responses
The diminishment of Chicago Tonight
Shelly R. —The news that WTTW-Ch. 11’s flagship news program “Chicago Tonight” will now air just two conventional half-hour shows each week down from five hour-long shows not long ago is both very upsetting and not surprising. The powers that be have somehow decided that an exceptional show with the extremely talented and passionate co-anchors Paris Schutz and Brandis Friedman, aided by a really knowledgeable team, should be cut way back. Their boneheaded decision to move the show to 10 p.m. from 7 p.m. back in January lost many of their senior viewers (like me) who don’t want news just before bedtime. Cutting it to a half an hour watered down its effectiveness in conveying the full picture of Chicago life. The show seems to be on its way out, and we will all be the poorer for it. Why isn’t this development bigger news?
Zorn — The statement that a station spokesperson gave to Axios Chicago, which broke this story, is ominously banal: "We are committed to offering a high-quality, local television news program to our viewers as we continue to meet audiences where they are.”
It suggests that the ratings and/or viewers-like-you donations related to the show have been down, and that station management is trying to come up with a sustainable model for a program that has been a fixture in Chicago broadcasting in various iterations since 1984.
It’s not bigger news because the major news outlets in Chicago no longer pay much attention to developments in local media. No person or publication has stepped forward to replace veteran media columnist Robert Feder, who retired in summer of 2022 after more than 40 years on the beat, even though the local media scene is more diverse and multi-dimensional than ever, and facing more challenges than ever.
Steve H. — Regarding your item “Chicago is on the path to phase out the practice of paying a subminimum wage to employees who regularly receive tips,” I’d like to know when and why the suggested percentage has increased. It was 10% in the 1950s. Then it went up to 15%. Now 20% is considered standard or even the bare minimum. But doesn't inflation in the cost of the meal account for a commensurate increase in the tip? We went to just a run-of-the-mill diner the other day. Most breakfasts cost $15 or more. They added a COVID-19 surcharge and the suggested tip on the bill was based on the cost of the meal, plus the tax, plus the surcharge. Our meal for two, with one iced tea being the only beverage, was about $40 and we left an $8 tip. Seems to me that $8 for the 10 minutes (at most) the waitress might have spent on us is pretty decent pay, regardless of what her hourly minimum is.
Zorn — One possible explanation is that the federal minimum wage for tipped employees has been fixed at $2.13 an hour since 1991 — that would still be just $4.86 today if it had kept pace with inflation. But many states have a higher tipped minimum and I doubt many people keep track of that anyway. My best guess is that the restaurant industry has at least quietly tried to spread the word that 20% is now standard because it makes it easier for them to retain staff while not paying them very much.
Rick W. — With the new higher “fair wage,” servers will earn $9.48 more every 90 minutes than they would have had the tipped minimum wage stayed in place. If they’re serving, say, five tables during that period and each table tips just $2 less because the diners know the servers are now getting paid better, the servers will come out behind.
Zorn — I wish that the employers would set wages and prices so they can pay their employees fairly without expecting customers to make up the difference between a fair wage and the wage they’re paying. That said, your math seems correct and somewhat ominous for servers given thisPicayune Sentinel click-poll result :
Shelly H. — My husband and I owned a large salon and day spa in the Northwest suburbs for 38 years and had to constantly deal with the issue of tip income with our employees. Our service providers were commission employees and we also hired assistants at full minimum wage, plus tips. We felt that we had to pay the assistants full minimum wage to effectively compete with big box stores for quality personnel. It was just the cost of doing business, and we absorbed it.
While I understand that restaurant owners in Chicago are worried about their bottom line as they move toward paying their servers minimum wage, these owners have a huge advantage over salon and spa owners and other tip-oriented businesses. I believe they are the only industry eligible for the FICA Tax Tip Credit which provides the restaurant owner with a 7.65% tax credit (the business owner's portion of FICA taxes) for reported tip income (after meeting minimum wage).
As an example, for every $100 of reported tip income, the salon owner pays $7.65 in FICA taxes. The restaurant owner receives a tax credit for this amount. Also, since many salons put a tip line on their credit card receipt, they are paying credit card fees on tip income which can be 2-3% of the transaction.
Combine this with the FICA taxes, salon/spa owners are losing $10 out of their bottom line for every $100 of their employees' reported tip income. For us, this added up to many, many, many thousands of dollars each year that we were losing paying taxes and fees for tip income that had nothing to do with our business! This is a huge burden and as you can imagine, the salon owner could easily put that money back into their business to expand, improve, and hire more people!
The beauty industry has been trying to change this unfair treatment for years with no luck. I feel that we are generally looked down upon by congressional leaders as not being an "important" industry, when in fact, this is a huge industry that employs many women with diverse backgrounds.
So, while I understand that restaurant owners in Chicago are nervous about change, I think they should count their blessings. They are operating in a "tipped" industry with a huge advantage over other "tipped" industries.
Randy C. — Regarding the entry in last week’s visual tweets contest that showed E. Jean Carroll name on the side of Trump Tower, your guidelines say you will disqualify any tweets that use “digitally altered photos to make the joke.” But that image was clearly photoshopped. Am I missing something?
Zorn — No. You are correctly observing that I need to fine-tune the wording of my rules. My goal is to exclude images that are deceptively digitally altered in order to make the joke. For instance, if there really is no pair of street signs like this from last week’s winning entry —
— then I would disqualify it, as I may well have to disqualify one of this week’s entries below. But when the joke is the result of an obvious photoshop (and reader Joan P. suggested it would have been funnier if the side of the building had shown Trump’s booking number) I have to allow it.
Rick W. —I thought none of the regular tweets and only one of the “dad tweets” was amusing last week. It’s time for you to let go of the company formerly known as Twitter.
Zorn — I admit it’s getting harder to find funny new tweets each week after nine years of running the weekly poll and digging through the offerings of the diminishing number of wits still around. I’ve joined Threads (I have 304 followers!) and Blue Sky (12 followers!) but haven’t found these platforms all that useful yet. I’m certainly open to bailing out on Twitter (20,631 followers), which I still refuse to call “X,” if and when one of these contenders/pretenders gets critical mass.
Public money for ‘school choice’
Melinda A.K. — I looked into supposedly public charter schools for my neurodivergent son and was uniformly discouraged from even applying because they didn't want to provide the speech and occupational therapies and special education services he would need. One charter director came right out and said the state money that accompanies such a student isn't enough to cover special ed services, and enrolling my child would detract from their mission to educate the other students. In western Michigan, this has resulted in public schools having all the special ed students and charters having none.
Peter Z — I did exactly what Stacy Davis Gates did. I sent my son to a Catholic high school. My primary motive was safety, secondary motives were control and agreement with its values.
No parent wants to send their kids to a dangerous school. Chicago has parts of its city that are dangerous where violence is common. They cannot control this violence. Schools located in these areas suffer from this violent environment. They spend lots of money trying to make this environment safe with poor results. They cannot police and teach.
You criticize private schools for eliminating difficult students. My Catholic school dealt with students that talked back to teachers, did not do their homework or cut classes. They expelled students who brought guns to school, who struck teachers and who dealt drugs.
Letting these students back into the school would threaten my son and his classmates and would pretty much shut down any learning.
Eric, where did you send your kids? Bet it was a safe environment.
Zorn — My children went to selective CPS high schools that did not have serious violence problems, and I certainly would support the investments and rule changes needed to make all public schools safe environments. Public education not only has to be available to children prone to violence, but it also must be —education is certainly one possible route away from the violent lifestyle. In her answer to your comment, Melinda A.K. wrote, “Schools just expelling problem students leaving them to their own devices isn't really a solution. Parochial schools can expel students without a worry because they know the public school system has to take the children.
Pete P. — You keep asking what the alleged “secret sauce” of private schools is that allows them to generally outperform public schools. It’s compete or die. There is no secret, no magic; they simply need to produce results or they’ll have to close their doors. The “secret sauce” is genuine terror that their customers won’t like them and will leave.
Zorn — Saying that private schools often achieve better outcomes because they really want to do better is pat and it avoids the actual question. Do the teachers put in more hours? Do they use different pedagogical methods? Are their classes smaller? Are they able to enforce stricter disciplinary standards?
I’d like to know. Because I suspect it’s not that they try harder and are more interested in good educational outcomes than public school teachers. I suspect it’s because the parent community is more involved and has been more active in giving their children enrichment opportunities since their children were born. I suspect it’s because they can threaten disruptive students with expulsion, a threat that doesn’t carry as much weight as it does in a public school.
Ask yourself why Oak Park River Forest High School or Stevenson High School or New Trier or the Glenbards or any number of other stellar suburban public high schools outperform neighborhood high schools in Chicago? Because of the incentives of competition with other suburbs? C’mon, man!
Steven K. — The breakdown in our educational systems has tracked closely with the tectonic shift that has occurred in our culture over the last 60 years. The dissolution of the family unit, normalization of out of wedlock childbirth, absent fathers, divorce, diminishment in structured religious upbringing, and all of the social ills (mental illness, drug abuse, despair, crime, suicide, cyclical poverty, etc) that come flooding through in the wake of these changes all represent ground zero in identifying the crisis of our school systems. I think that it is very gullible to think that problems of this magnitude can be corrected with the Band Aid solutions that are offered. More nurses and social workers are not going to do the trick, but neither are gift certificates that can be cashed in at a parochial school.
Zorn — This comment as well as a follow-up comment from David L. that said “72% of teenagers who committed a murder did not have a father in the home, 60% of all rapists were raised without a father and 70% of teenagers incarcerated did not have a present father growing up” touched off a robust conversation.
Deni— Is a broken home really the cause of those problems or is a broken home another one of the symptoms of abject poverty and the failure to invest in our communities? I’ll bet if you adjust for income levels, those disparities go away. Lots of people in middle and higher income brackets without a father in the home probably don't have anywhere near the same level of dropout rates and engagement with the criminal justice system.
Lynn A. T. — Inner city schools where there is structural poverty face many challenges that public schools, in particular suburban ones, do not face to nearly the same degree. One example is health care. How many suburban or private school students have to miss school and wait for hours at Cook County’s Stroger Hospital to be seen by a doctor? Or how many have to watch their siblings while their parent waits to receive health care for another child? Ask yourself how many parents of kids in top performing schools lose their jobs because they have to wait for hours in an emergency room when they have a chronically sick kid. Poverty creates many little wounds that limit upward mobility.
Zorn — We’re going to be hearing more about this issue as the General Assembly debates putting an end to “Invest in Kids,” a form of support for private schools that works this way: Citizens interested in supporting private education donate to nonprofit scholarship granting organizations (SGOs) that oversee the disbursal of tuition stipends to private school scholarships for children whose family income is up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level so they can afford to attend nonpublic schools that have the Illinois State Board of Education seal of approval.
Currently, donors can claim 75% of their donation as a tax credit, meaning that if they contribute $10,000 to an SGO, they can subtract $7,500 from the amount that they would normally owe in state income taxes. The shortcut means that the state doesn’t technically give out the money. But that $7,500 would have gone into the state’s general revenue fund if it hadn’t ended up at one of the schools on the approved list, many of which are run by religious organizations.
The Illinois Department of Revenue can issue up to $75 million in such tax credits every year, which deepens the budget hole we’re all in. So even those who don’t participate in “Invest in Kids” are paying for it in tax revenue that is lost to the state.
And it’s worth pointing out that those who are loudly in favor of this program and objecting to efforts to end it can still donate all they want to nonprofit scholarship granting organizations and count those donations as charitable contributions for tax purposes.
K. M. — While I appreciate reading Charlie Meyerson’s “Squaring Up the News” post each week, I’d like the items to be marked with an asterisk or some such to let me know that the linked item is behind a paywall.
Zorn — This is a problem with some of the links I provide as well, and addressing it is easier said than done. Many publications allow a few bonus peeks behind their paywalls while others — like Crain’s Chicago Business — have nearly impermeable paywalls. Meyerson sometimes has “gift” links that allow you to read a particular story for free.
I totally understand the need for paywalls. Writers and editors need and deserve to get paid for their work and publications need income streams to survive. The idea behind free views is to entice you to subscribe, which you’re probably never going to do for a speciality publication.
Charlie addressed this issue for Chicago Public Square readers on July 11:
Square aims to provide as many free links to the news as possible—sometimes via paid sites’ “gift links” or “enewspaper” URLs, sometimes by citing republication on reputable syndication sites (like yahoo.com and msn.com). But sometimes great journalism is available under deadline in just one place. Here are some tips to help you read those stories:
■ In many cases, you can see a blocked page by opening an incognito browser window—making you seem like a brand-new visitor—and pasting the story’s address there.
■ Other times, what looks like a paywall may actually just be an appeal for you to share your email address …
■ … and sometimes, the fine print may give you the option to proceed to a website without surrendering money or personal information.
■ Some sites will instead offer you cheap introductory access—a buck for a month, for instance. And would that be so bad?
■ And, of course, if compelling Square links send you to the same walled site time and again, maybe paying real cash to keep such work flowing would be good for democracy and journalism.
Meyerson added: “Because some paywalls are metered—for example, visitors get X number of articles free per month—flagging links as paywalled might discourage some readers who’d get in for free. I’d welcome specifics on any links that prove unreachable. I may be able to provide some alternatives. Drop me a note anytime at C@ChicagoPublicSquare.com.”
Ya gotta see these tweets!
Here are some funny visual images I've come across recently on social media. Enjoy, then evaluate:
Vote for your favorite. I will disqualify any tweets I later find out used deceptively digitally altered photos to make the joke. I suspect that the “Swearhouse” image has been altered as there are several similar pictures online and this video makes it clear that others have at least played with the joke. I’ll share the winner in Thursday’s main edition.
There’s still time to vote in the conventional Tweet of the Week poll!
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