A casual conversation with anyone working front-of-house in the restaurant industry will solidify a known ideal; these workers rely on their tips to survive. An offhanded suggestion that the industry should do away with tipping would no doubt be received with an onslaught of objection and rightfully so. For decades tipping has grown from a small optional bonus for a job well done, to a mandatory shame-inducing ritual that is harmful to patrons, restaurant owners, and especially servers. To ensure the wellbeing of service industry workers and restore the integrity of restaurants, the United States must replace toxic tipping culture with a livable wage for employees.
The tipping culture in this country is something that is viewed as quintessentially American although tipping originated in Europe and didn’t reach our shores until the time of the Civil War (Surowiecki). With the arrival of this custom came an uproar of Americans claiming it had no place in a country like ours. They opposed the practice on the grounds that Americans were supposed to uphold values of equality. The act of tipping was widely viewed as classist. In 1916 William R. Scott stated, “It [Tipping] represents the root of aristocracy budding anew in the hearts of those who publicly renounced the system and all its works.” (Scott, 36). For over a century tipping was practiced as an exchange of a small amount of additional money for what was viewed as a menial task-- beneath the stature of the aristocratic to perform, therefore only those members of the lowest class would receive tips.
Tipping in the United States is rooted deeply in racism. At the end of the Civil War freed black families flocked to new cities to find work, however, the only work readily available was considered unskilled labor like restaurant work. Before minimum wage laws were set in place, restaurant owners paid their workers very little forcing tipping as a form of slightly more respectable begging. During this period, the conversation surrounding tipping was self-aware as a racist practice. In 1902 a journalist by the name of John Speed wrote “I had never known any but negro servants. Negroes take tips of course; one expects that of them-- It is a symbol of their inferiority. But to give money to a white man was embarrassing to me.” (Jayaraman, 43).
It wasn’t until the birth of the prohibition of alcohol that tipping as we currently understand it in the restaurant industry began. The sale of alcohol became illegal and restaurant profits plummeted. Diminished revenue inspired establishment owners to look elsewhere for their worker’s compensation. They began to encourage tipping as an excuse to pay their employees less. Owners were able to shift blame for poor wages off of themselves and onto a lack of generosity from patrons. During this era, we saw a great paradigm shift in the mentality of the employee. A service industry worker’s income was now based on promptness and professionalism of service rather than a guarantee for hours worked, or at least that’s how it was perceived.
To this day many restaurant workers still view their tips as a reflection of job performance. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to back up this mindset. A study done by Cornell University found the reasoning behind the amount of money a patron tips their server is essentially random. In this study the gratitude given for excellent service compared to that of poor service varied by only 1% on average (The Science Journal, 37). Even If you were to remove this false sense of autonomy from the employees’ perspective, it would likely do very little in terms of persuading them to do away with tipping.
Servers' lives are intertwined with tipping in such a way that if they were forced to live on just hourly wages many of them would not be able to afford schooling, child care, housing, or even a way to feed themselves. Tipping is quite literally their livelihood. Laws surrounding minimum wage vary from state to state, but you are not required to pay tipped workers the average minimum wage in most cases. According to the U.S. Department of Labor federal law only requires states to pay $2.13 an hour to cash-tipped, employees. Some states such as Oregon, Alaska, and California have taken it upon themselves to do away with these old laws in favor of standing minimum wage enforcement for all employees. While this may seem like a step in the right direction, the tips an individual earns are taxed so heavily that their paychecks may as well be (and oftentimes are) nonexistent. Even with this system in place tipping still takes up the great majority of a server's income with paychecks acting as a sometimes supplemental bonus. The roles of tipping and paychecks have essentially switched places since the time the practice first began. With laws surrounding tipped workers so undeniably unjust, why do people still enter this profession? Why do some stay for their entire working lives?
Simply put, the money in the service industry can be very good. In California, it is not uncommon for a fine dining server to make as much as $65,000 per year (Server Jobs in California, indeed.com). Serving is one of the highest paying jobs a person with no higher education can enter into due solely to the current tipping culture. With that kind of financial potential, it is easy to see why so many flocks to this profession. Sadly the allure of quick money has its drawbacks.
In most restaurants, the possibility of benefits such had medical, dental, or mental healthcare is close to nonexistent to any employee below the management level. According to a study from Emory University, food industry workers have a 60 percent higher rate of occupational injury or illness than workers in other professions. In an industry that is notorious for workplace injuries (both short and long term), lack of health insurance is problematic, to say the least.
Fortunately, several restaurant owners have pioneered a shift in the right direction. In 2016 Clause Meyer, a Danish restaurateur opened the doors to his latest restaurant in New York. Instead of perpetuating American tipping culture, he decided to raise the prices of his food. In turn, this allowed him to provide his staff with a living wage along with health benefits, a matching 401k and even paid parental leave. While a business model resembling this is standard in Europe, Meyers was dubbed revolutionary by his peers. His tactics were viewed as outlandish and risky. Unfortunately, those views were correct. His restaurant was forced to return to standard gratuity practices after some time. The New York dining scene simply wasn’t ready for what they perceived as a radical change in their dining experience. While there are over 200 no-tip restaurants in the United States, these numbers are depleting and the country appears to be backsliding into its old ways (Dunn).
As it stands, there seems to be only one logical solution; the laws and taxes that apply to tipped employees have to change. At the very least the standard for minimum wage should remain the same for every American, not just those who work outside of the service industry. A rise in minimum wage will increase menu prices slowly, allowing the public to adjust accordingly rather than experience sticker shock due to pricier menu items. In reality, the patron won’t pay much more for their meal since the tip is no longer a part of their dining experience. An increase in wage and menu prices over time and across the board will act as a middle step, the ultimate goal being the eradication of tipping as we know it.
Echoes of centuries-old racist and classist customs can be seen in the restaurant industry and throughout our daily lives. We are perpetuating a system used to ensure the wealth of the already affluent and the poverty of the disadvantaged. To prevent the further mistreatment of service industry employees, this country needs to take a stand for the fair treatment of all its citizens. It is imperative that the knowledge of the ill effects of the current tipping culture be spread to the workers it affects the most and the lawmakers that can put cogs in motion to incite real change.
Dunn, Elizabeth. “The Limitations of American Restaurants' No-Tipping Experiment.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 26 Feb. 2018, www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-gastronomy/the-limitations-of-american-restaurants-no-tipping-experiment.
Jayaraman, Sarumathi. Forked: a New Standard for American Dining. Oxford University Press, 2016.
“Salaries.” Jobs, 12 Mar. 2019, www.indeed.com/salaries/Server-Salaries,-California.
Scott, William R. The Itching Palm: a Study of the Habit of Tipping in America. Kessinger Publishing, 1916.
Surowiecki, James. “Check, Please.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 20 June 2017, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/09/05/check-please-3.