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When restaurants can’t afford to pay busboys minimum wage, you know things are bad out there. The Wall Street Journal reports today that at least one major chain (Bob Evans) and a few franchisees from another (T.G.I. Friday’s) are axing the folks who clean up after us in their restaurants. It’s putting the squeeze on waiters and waitresses who already have to cover too many tables.

Reporter Janet Adamy writes:

“The busser is a luxury that, in this environment, is very difficult to justify,” says Mark Godward, president and founder of SRE, a Miami consulting firm that has advised several restaurants to cut busboys.

In many states, it’s cheaper to keep servers 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.

Waiters and waitresses at most full-service restaurants always have shared some responsibility for clearing their tables, and plenty of sit-down eateries historically have gotten by without busboys. But at restaurants that have long employed them, their departure is making the already demanding job of waiting tables more hectic. Servers depend on bussers to stock ice bins, roll silverware into napkins, refill water glasses and deliver bread to tables.

Some restaurant executives see this as a worrisome trend. To ensure good service, “it would absolutely be the last place I’d cut,” says Nelson Marchioli, chief executive of breakfast chain Denny’s Corp.

How much longer do you give it before mid-level restaurants start asking patrons to bus their own tables, like at a cafeteria?