Before moving my wagon train West, I worked as a server and bartender for four years in Philadelphia, PA. And while I mostly enjoyed the generosity of those I served, there were always instances when my work wasn’t compensated, at least not by what I consider to be acceptable tipping standards. Like all servers, I have my share of service horror stories. From a backed up kitchen causing a woman to scream belittling things at me in the middle of a packed dining room to high check dine-n-ditchers sticking me with their tab, I’ve been through it all. It can be absolutely terrifying to rely on strangers’ tips as your primary income, but that’s what everyone who’s ever served you dinner has had to do. Isn’t that kind of crazy to think about?
I was one of the lucky ones whose career in food service was mostly positive and profitable, but when I think back on how I earned my living, it’s pretty astonishing. Largely, I depended on the kindness of strangers or, more specifically, depended on them liking me enough during our transaction to leave me a sizable tip. In fact, almost my entire earned wage came from tips because in Pennsylvania servers earn $2.83 an hour. I never looked into this, I just accepted it as a simple fact: in the US, we tip servers and that’s how they make their money. That’s just how it is, no further explanation needed or offered. But recently, as several news stories about poor tipping fallout have made their way to the national news, I wanted to learn more about why this is the way it is and try to figure out just where that leaves us.
The simple answer, as some of you already know, is that it’s a pretty strange system we have set up here. Though tipping is not mandatory and cannot be enforced by any law, it has become social law: it is anticipated, it is expected, it is the norm. The federal government actually recognizes a distinction between regular wages and wages for those in frequently tipped positions and in 1966 began including a sub-section of the federal minimum wage called the tipped minimum wage. According to the Fair Labor and Standards Act, a person is defined as a tipped employee if they earn over $30 a month in tips. If the employee’s tipped income combined with their tipped minimum wage does not equal out to a regular minimum wage, the employer is obligated to make up the difference. Really, nothing could be simpler.
Here’s where it starts to get tricky; the federal tipped minimum wage was raised to $2.13 in 1991 and has not been raised since despite inflation and an escalated cost of living. However, individual states can vote to raise their tipped minimum wage. Luckily for our state’s fine servers, California’s tipped minimum wage is $8.00 (Washington offers the highest at $9.19/hr). Though many states have decided to increase their tipped minimum wage, approximately 50% of states still allow for $2.13/hr with the expectation of tips. That’s a pretty lofty expectation and certainly puts a lot of pressure on both servers and patrons.
Which brings me to my next observation: money makes people emotional. The quest to get it and the process of parting with it can bring out a flurry of emotion. Somehow, as a nation, we’ve never really been able to agree upon an appropriate amount to tip our servers. So when it comes to coughing up extra scrilla for a tip, the waters can get real muddy real quick. As a teenager running off to Ruby Tuesday’s at the mall, my mom made sure I understood I needed to budget for a tip of 10-15%. In recent years though, the average tip percentage has gone up to 15-20% (and most servers would tell you 20% should be a minimum). Even though etiquette guru Emily Post declares tips at sit-down restaurants should be 15-20%, no questions asked, some people simply won’t ever tip that much. It’s an occupational hazard of sorts. Make no mistake, providing good service is hard work. And, while parting with hard earned money can be tough, working hard to earn money can be even tougher, especially when your customers determine your income.
But here is where I start to see a real flaw in the system. Since servers are earning, in most cases, a significantly reduced hourly wage, they are completely dependent on their tips. That puts an awful lot of power in the hands of the consumer: remember tipping is not technically mandatory. It also leaves the door wide open for some very cruel behavior (and very generous behavior, though those stories rarely make the news). The thing is, “gratuity” is an incredibly misleading word. Rather than being a bonus or a reward for a job well done, servers’ incomes are being completely subsidized by patrons’ tips. Therefore, servers rely on their patrons to keep pace with inflation rates. Whew! That’s an awful lot of pressure. Factor in that most servers have no healthcare, sick days or vacation time and it’s enough to make your head spin. But this is the system we have in place and social and cultural norms dictate that we must play by these rules.
So here we are, left to settle the check but a long way from settling the debate. Sometimes the restaurant tries to make things easy for us and includes the gratuity on the bill. This usually happens with larger parties and is usually specified in writing on the menu. Recently, Pastor Alois Bell of St. Louis made national news when a nasty note she scrawled on her lunch receipt made its way to Reddit. Apparently, Alois was displeased with Applebee’s decision to include an 18% gratuity on her party of eight’s bill. For her $34.93 portion of the check, Alois opted to scratch out the auto-grat and leave the following note instead,” I give God 10%, why do you get 18?” Chelsea Welch, who served Alois, found the “tip” so insulting that she decided to photograph the receipt and post it to Reddit’s Atheism page under the title “My mistake sir, I’m sure Jesus will pay for my rent and groceries.” It went viral. When Alois eventually became aware that she’d achieved internet infamy, she promptly called Applebee’s who promptly fired Welch. Was it wrong for Welch to post the receipt and publicly shame Alois? Probably. But it was also wrong to leave a zero dollar tip and an indignant note. I suppose two wrongs really don’t make a right and now Welch is without a job and Alois has a tarnished image. All this over a $6.23 tip, what a mess.
So how do we determine how much to leave as a tip? There has to be a better solution than no tip and public shaming. I guess there is really no way to get everyone to agree, but we can at least have a conversation about it. Do I get frustrated with less-than-awesome service at restaurants and bars? Of course I do, but I leave a 20% tip just the same because to me, going out to eat and drink is like signing a social contract and that contract demands a tip. Maybe I’m a sucker or maybe I just understand what it’s like to serve to make your living, but, either way, I believe in tipping. For me, understanding how compensation for service industry personnel works helps make it easier for me to feel good about the tip I’m leaving. Remembering that my server is an equal human being and not a servant or beneath me in any way helps even more (also belittling those who serve you only serves to make you look like a jerk). And while I feel the system we have set up for our nation’s servers is built on a very shaky foundation, I feel that we are obligated to do our part to support these people by leaving appropriate tips. It’s a wacky system all right, but it’s what we have to work with. Of course, this is just my wish for the service industry, what’s your take on it?