Want to fight wage inequality? Ban tipping

A Diner

It’s bad for everyone.

I never realized just how bad the problem of tipping culture in America had gotten until I asked my boyfriend how much it’s customary to tip an Instacart delivery guy. I’d pre-tipped the last guy 10 percent with my order, but that felt wrong—should I tip 15 percent, or 20, like a waiter? He seemed appalled that I should even have to ask this question: “Why are you tipping for a service you haven’t even gotten yet?” It doesn’t bother me to tip (as someone who loathed working in food service and knows how awful it is, I start at 20 percent), but sitting with that question bothered me: The tip wasn’t about rewarding service. The tip was about paying for an employee’s salary, rather than just giving someone a livable wage outright.

This is a question the food industry has been grappling with for years, as the minimum for those whose jobs rely on tips stays well below the national minimum wage. According a 2013 report from the BBC, “federal minimum wage for tipped restaurant workers is $2.13 an hour, with tips expected to take the wage to $7.25 an hour.” While 24 states have raised servers’ hourly wages to above that rate and seven states require restaurant workers to be paid equal to the national minimum wage, 19 states lag behind. And this has a severe economic impact on food service workers living in those areas, according to a March 2014 survey from the U.S. Department of Labor and the National Economic Council. According to Huffington Post’s Hunter Stuart, they found that waiters are nearly “three times as likely as other workers to experience poverty.”

In technical terms, this means that a restaurant worker in Kentucky is earning less today in real wages than he would have 20 years ago.

According to Stuart, federal regulations in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1966 set up a standard minimum wage for tipped workers that would be pegged to the national wage. “The FLSA established that the tipped minimum wage had to be no less than 50 percent of the regular minimum wage,” Stuart writes. “That way, when the regular minimum wage increased, the tipped minimum wage would automatically increase along with it.” Thus, if the national wage was $8.50, tipped wages would start at $4.25—not great, but certainly better than $2.13 an hour. However, political pressure from the Herman Cain-led restaurant lobby forced the Clinton administration to divorce the national and tipping minimum wages in 1996; thus, tipping wages stayed the same, while inflation increased everyone else’s earnings. In technical terms, this means that a restaurant worker in Kentucky is earning less today in real wages than he would have 20 years ago.

These egregiously outdated labor standards have led to a wide Internet movement to abolish tipping culture—a conversation that is long overdue. A CollegeHumor video that went viral last week argued that “tipping is a custom we’d be better off without,” because it “shortchanges serves, inconveniences customers, and makes the dining experience worse for everyone.” And it particularly creates a harsh and predatory environment for servers, who often have to deal with sexual harassment or homophobia from customers. At a Carrabas Grill in Overland Park, Kan., a waiter was left an anti-gay note in place of a tip. The message read: “Thank you for your service, it was excellent. That being said, we cannot in good conscience tip you, for your homosexual lifestyle is an affront to God. Queers do not share in the wealth of God, and you will not share in ours.”

It particularly creates a harsh and predatory environment for servers, who often have to deal with sexual harassment or homophobia from customers.

If it’s any consolation to that waiter, homophobia isn’t the only reason people don’t tip. Another diner blamed the Obama administration; instead of a tip, he left his waitress a laminated card that read: “As a direct result of Proposition 30 and President Obama’s insistence that I pay ‘MY FAIR SHARE IN TAXES,’ I find that I must cut back on discretionary spending and gratuities. I wish it didn’t have to be this way for both of us.”

While it’s completely ludicrous that man has enough money to both eat out and print professional-looking cards explaining why he doesn’t tip, he has a weird, but valid point here: It shouldn’t be up to the consumer to decide. It shouldn’t have to be this way. As the above examples note, customers rarely tip on the quality of the service. According to Cornell professor Michael Lynn, tipping culture furthers a culture of discrimination. For instance, female servers make more than men do, blondes earn more than brunettes, and well-endowed women out-earn their more modestly sized counterparts. In addition, Slate’s Brian Palmer reports that “we tip servers more if they tell us their names, touch us on the arm, or draw smiley faces on our checks.”

Female servers make more than men do, blondes earn more than brunettes, and well-endowed women out-earn their more modestly sized counterparts.

As Palmer notes, a 2000 survey found that the customer’s satisfaction with the waiter’s actual job performance “only accounts for between 1 and 5 percent of the variation in tips at a restaurant.” Because of that reality, waiters have to play the game in order to earn their wages—and thereby pay their rent. The Washington Post last October interviewed Catherine Bryant, a former waitress in Memphis who is often forced to look the other way when men whistle or make passes at her at work. “I know I should have my dignity, this is a professional job, I shouldn’t really have to whore myself out,” Bryant said. ”But if he’s buying 12-year-old whiskey, it could be a very precarious situation. If I say ‘Hey, treat me with respect,’ and he says, ‘What a bitch, I’m just not going to tip her,’ … you lose all of your money.”

That culture creates not just a hostile and unsafe workplace for women, but also a second-class status for black waiters and servers of color, who earn 3 percent less than their white co-workers; customers simply don’t tip them as well, no matter the work they put in. 

The situation isn’t any better for African-American, Latino, and Christian patrons, according to the Guardian’s Elizabeth Gunnison Dunn, “who can expect to receive worse service than the table full of white atheists next to [them].” Dunn writes, “Surveys have found that waiters actually perceive these groups as bad tippers and, as such, ignore them in favor of more lucrative tables.” Elderly patrons can also expect to receive the same treatment.

Dunn further explains in Esquire that “when you leave a bad tip, you are docking a person’s wages,” a practice that leads to a false sense of authority amongst customers. If you find yourself with a group of seniors and you aren’t getting served, the answer seems to be to send a message in the form of reduced compensation, and that power is addictive. 

While federal regulations might seem to be the problem, customers are standing in the way of change right along with the feds. According to polls, Americans love tipping, which is part of why it accounts for $44 billion dollars each year just in the food industry. While critic William Rufus Scott wrote in 1916 that “every tip given in the United States is a blow at our experiment in democracy,” many Americans seem to believe just the opposite.

On top of hurting servers and patrons, tipping hurts the industry as a whole.

And they’re wrong. On top of hurting servers and patrons, tipping hurts the industry as a whole. Industries that run on tipping are more likely to experience high rates of turnover than those that provide a livable wage to employees outright. According to restaurateur Jay Porter, tipping culture “promotes and facilitates bad service” by “[giving] servers the choice between doing their best work and making the most money.” Porter wrote in Quartz, “Tipped servers, in turn, learn that service quality isn’t particularly important to their revenue. Instead they are rewarded for maximizing the number of guests they serve, even though that degrades service quality.” This is why Porter’s restaurant in San Francisco banned tipping, finding that it not only improved service but also increased revenue.

It might make customers uncomfortable to have their power taken away, but we’re forced to make a choice between continuing to fund a culture that makes little sense or creating a system that pays service workers just like everyone else. Ask yourself why I’m able to determine how much money my Instacart guy makes, but I’m not allowed to do the same for my chiropractor, my dentist, or the workers at my grocery store. When the restaurant is also manned by managers, chefs, bussers, and hosts, why do we only ask the person whose face we see to answer for their entire company? What would happen if we did the same with CEOs or teachers of failing schools?

If you have to ask these questions, you already know the real answer: It’s time to finally get rid of tipping, once and for all.

Photo via country_boy_shane/Flickr (CC BY-N.D. 2.0)

Nico Lang

Nico Lang

Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.