The Tipping Point: A Nice Gesture, Not A Stable Source of Income

Michael Coghlan
Michael Coghlan

There are a few social rules sacred enough someone can nearly be jailed for un-American activities for breaking. Not being in favor of tipping is one of those sacrilegious lines that makes people come across as being cheap or not having any compassion for the little guy. However, the un-Americanness regarding tipping has gone the other way in the past and America may be drifting back to a non-tipping culture.

In principle, I am not opposed to tipping. Or, should I say, spending the money is not usually the issue. When money is the issue, I don’t go out at all. But when I go out, I tip. If the service is good, I tip generously.

People need to be paid, particularly people in the trenches of the food service industry. It is a real occupation for which most people do not receive real compensation. I have been a waiter a couple of times and deeply understand the struggle. On the opposite token, I also believe that the nature of the tipping system is designed to make it more of a struggle.

Staff at service industry jobs absolutely needs to be paid something close to what they are worth; it’s just that it should not be the customer’s responsibility to pay salaries. A customer supports a business by being a patron. An employee then gets paid by their boss. For some reason, the service industry works differently.

Tipping as a practice, ironically, started in England, in taverns and other service occupations like stagecoach drivers, inn staff or menial laborers. It was never quite popular and became viewed as a source of income for a class of licensed beggars since “the inns did not pay their staff a proper wage.”

Tipping was imported to the United States via aristocrats returning from overseas trips to show off their “worldliness”, i.e. pompousness. It grew as a practice around the time of the Civil War, but the controversy was shown in the New York Times in as “downright blackmail” and the “vilest of imported devices.”

Scrutiny ran deep with an anti-tipping crusade by such publicly-loved luminaries as Mark Twain and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Even government figures all the way up to President Taft turned it into a political issue, considered it an un-American activity, and attempted to pass laws against tipping. In 1916, William Scott wrote a book called The Itching Palm that blasted tipping as a “moral disease” that provided most value in sentimental terms, rather than actual monetary advantage because the nature of tipping did not fulfill a sound transaction between the customer and the merchant. Scott called it the price of pride that undermined virtually everything about the American experience.

It was a harsh stance which felt that the tip was best suited to foster a heartfelt service, but actually turned wait staff into hustlers, creating a servile attitude of making underpaid staff work harder for every bit of extra cash. In the 1936 film The Petrified Forest, Rudy Vallee was still referring to tipping as un-American. However, like all things based on inequality, business, government and media rallied to the cause and promoted a great new American custom. It’s so American to tip these days, that we are basically the only country to encourage tipping.

A big argument against tipping has been, who benefits from the tip? Is the tip lining restaurateurs’ pockets or saving staff from starvation? It’s not hard to guess who benefits in a system defined as “giving of a gratuity to an inferior.” And to consider the conventional early thought that the practice mostly applied across racial and gender lines, we can really highlight the servile nature of it all. Median pay for tipped workers in New York is $9.43 per hour. Certainly, tipped staff are not the ones getting rich in the industry.

Across the board, salaries could be more fairly distributed by giving staff a straight salary. There are some restaurants that have abolished tipping, though most have done so by adding fees or otherwise raising costs. A Pittsburgh restaurant decided to eliminate tipping, in favor of a $35,000 base annual salary, complete with health benefits, while not adding fees or raising costs. The notion was followed up by notorious New York restaurateur Danny Meyer to eliminate tipping in all of his establishments and that has really pushed the tipping issue back into the limelight.

Some of the controversy stated by industry professionals in the above article suggest a contradictory notion that tipping equalizes the wages amongst front and back staff. Empirically, that has become the crux of the modern issue.

There is no reason whatsoever that front of the house staff should be paid any differently than back of the house staff. In top line restaurants, such as the ones that can begin this non-tipped experiment, pay should be more equally distributed. As it stands now, the wait staff typically take home most, if not all, of the tips. That can result in wait staff making much more money than cooks.

This is unequal because the service is unequal. Having worked both ends of the industry, I can assure anyone that back of the staff do the more necessary work for the overall operation. A restaurant can exist without more than a cashier, if that, out front. No restaurant can survive without cooks in the back. So, that system which encouraged solid pay for cooks, devolved into higher and higher percentages for waiters, creating its own inequity.

Meanwhile, waiters have a feast or famine job depending on what shifts they get, what state they work in, or what scale of establishment they work in. Some states pay servers much less than minimum wage, which can be a death sentence working a slow afternoon shift if the taxes on the presumed tips made end up being higher than the money actually made. In the political jockeying climate though, other shifts can see waiters make hundreds of dollars, while cooks in the back might make $12 per hour.

The new attempt at non-tipped staff seeks more equitable distribution of the money. The establishments do typically as happens in, say France, where a surcharge is added to the bill. The surcharge is then split among all staff, resulting in many cases of back staff making a few more dollars per hour.

The way different countries work is intriguing, no doubt. For tourists, it always presents a conundrum. Do they represent their own culture or do as the Romans do when in Rome? I have seen every end of the spectrum. In Switzerland, a waiter gave me a look of “duh” when asked their custom, so I left him an American-like tip. Asking for advice in Australia, it took a moment for people to understand what I was asking before they agreed, “oh sure, you can leave a tip if you want, but it’s not necessary.” In Japan, I had a shop owner sprinting down the street to give my money back, telling me that I paid too much. For such experiences, there are excellent primers on tipping internationally.

Ideally, the move to a European-like surcharge seems a win-win for staff. People interviewed at a San Diego restaurant that abandoned tipping suggests that servers will be accepting of a change where it concerns the good of the company and the co-workers overall. It still requires the customer to pick up the slack that the employer should be paying and sort of makes things even less democratic by forcing the patron to leave a tip of a certain percentage, but it’s a step toward a more equitable system.

What should probably not be affected are small, locally-owned shops. The tipping custom will probably always remain in such places. When there are two or three staff total working their ass off right in front of a customer (one of which is probably also the owner) and everyone knows everyone and where all the money goes, tipping is the greatest thing in the world. But in a huge corporate restaurant serving frankenfood and staff that feign friendliness for an extra buck, more skepticism is deserved.

Left to the customer’s discretion, it’s a nice gesture to show a little extra appreciation for the person working so hard directly on the front line in customer service. But it should never be a source of reliance for the employee as it became in the second half of the twentieth century. These staff should be paid a fair wage and, if they get a little kick back from time to time, that is gravy on top. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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