Kathleen Geier has a nice piece in WaMo reflecting on this really heartbreaking article about the abuse restaurant workers endure. She doesn’t have a big policy solution, but recommends (i) we be civil to waitstaff and (ii) tip generously (she says 20%).
I wish I agreed about (ii), but not only do I despise the whole convention of tipping, and despise it more after learning how corrupt it is and how it exposes workers to theft by employers, but I believe doing more of it is anti-worker and inhumane. Of course, if you are the only one who leaves an extra-big tip, you have done something nice for the waitstaff (unless the boss has figured out how to steal it all; see the Salon article). But to think you can do people any good in the medium to long run by generally tipping more, you have to believe the labor market in this industry doesn’t work at all. It is hard to see the wheels turn because it’s not only wages but also menu prices that adjust together when the rules change. But suppose tipping were ended, either everywhere or in a single restaurant: employers would have to offer more salary to get people to work for them, and raise menu prices, to a first approximation, by 15% or whatever the typical tip is. Not much change in anyone’s income or costs, but everything would be in the open, and the wages would be reported and taxable (maybe still higher prices, if tipping is shielding a lot of the labor cost from tax, and a good thing), and it would be much harder for employers to rip off the help. If customers take Kathy’s advice and just tip more, conversely, nearly all will be competed away from the workers as employers (and customers) pay lower wages and customers pay less for their meals. That the minimum restaurant wage of $2.13 per hour is the actual wage in many places proves that tips are fungible against salary; no-one can live on that.Tipping in restaurants used to be 10-15%, and only for table service. Now it’s 15-20%, or more and tip jars are popping up on every counter. Tips should go up with inflation, as long as they are part of the deal. But the dinner tab and the price of everything else is already going up that way: why should there be inflation in the percent going to tips? Why should I be made to feel like a chump or a jerk after every meal knowing that doing the right thing for my waiter is making the world a little worse? And don’t tell me it improves service, either for me the next time I come or generally. I don’t eat at the same place every day, week, or even month, nor have the same waiter when I do. I don’t get any better service in American restaurants than in French or Italian ones, where service is on the tab and not negotiable, nor do I get better service from waiters who get tips than from dry cleaners who don’t.
The system is lousy in fact, economically, and maybe worse affectively/symbolically. Tipping someone who’s done you a service is a condescension reserved for specific classes of service and by extension, social classes of recipients, and has no place in a civilized world. Think your doctor, or your kids’ teacher, would appreciate a twenty slipped to them after an office visit or a parent report night? It symbolizes the idea that the buyer is the sole judge of a fair wage for a service and the worker has to take it and like it, much like turkeys given out to the lord’s serfs or, for that matter, cornmeal for slaves.
I’m looking for the restaurant that has a box on the menu that says:
“We pay our workers fairly, and they, and we, pay taxes on their earnings, just as you do. Feel free to ask your waiter about this. Please don’t tip; our menu prices include the extra salary that makes up for tips. Enjoy your meal.”