Dining out: Time to rethink gratuities?
“A movement is afoot to correct” the perceived inequities of restaurant tipping, said The Economist. Under current federal law, front-of-house staff, such as servers and bartenders, earn a lower base pay than do back-of-house staff like cooks and dishwashers, “with tips covering the difference.” So while the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, it is $2.13 an hour for tipped workers. Advocates of the gratuities system maintain that it “rewards dutiful service.” But others argue that servers’ wages “shouldn’t be discretionary,” and that having to work for tips enables “a culture of harassment,” because female servers feel compelled to “tolerate inappropriate behavior by customers just to earn a living.” To address these complaints, seven states—Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington—have in recent years ended the two-tier wage system. Last month, residents of Washington, D.C., voted to join them, with Michigan and New York expected to soon follow suit.
America’s tipping system “defies all economic logic,” said Allison Schrager in QZ.com. Most Americans imagine a gratuity to be an economic transaction between server and customer, reflecting the quality of service they’ve received. But the experience of a meal is actually “the product of the entire restaurant staff.” Cooks and dishwashers significantly affect the dining experience, “yet tips mostly compensate the server.” Consumers increasingly seem to understand this: 44 percent of Americans now want to do away with gratuities altogether. That’s because most people know that tipping plays virtually no meaningful role in motivating good service, said David Lazarus in the Los Angeles Times. While I’m sure the majority of servers try to do their best, most of us tip between 15 and 20 percent, “regardless of service quality.” Restaurants argue that eliminating tips and requiring higher minimum wages for all servers would force them to cut jobs, but as a consumer, I’d prefer menu prices commensurate with the wages that restaurant staff deserve. “I want to judge a business by the totality of my experience, not just one worker’s performance.”
That’s all well and good, said Petula Dvorak in The Washington Post, but for many of us, tipping remains “firmly a part of American culture.” Many of us “can’t stop tipping, even when we travel to a country where tipping isn’t standard.” That isn’t to say some of us aren’t misers. My lifelong habit of glancing at paid checks on restaurant tables has revealed that many Americans “will get away without tipping fairly—or at all—if they can.” The move to eliminate the two-tiered wage system might ultimately help the most economically vulnerable servers, who work at diners and other more affordable establishments and who “hustle in $1 and $2 increments.” If wage reformers have their way, we’re about to find out whether it works for everyone else. ■