2017-04-20 / Opinion

Redefining Tipping


Gary Anderson Gary Anderson I’ve never understood the logic of tipping as it’s usually practiced.

The operative rule when dining out is that one should leave a gratuity commensurate with the total expenses incurred. The more expensive the meal the higher the expected tip.

Some people carry tip calculators to accurately figure a percentage-based amount to leave. Some eateries actually have suggested gratuity percentages already calculated for you on the check.

The tacit understanding is that, rather than an actual gratuity, the tip is a de facto additionally required charge for the experience of dining out. It’s an accepted open ended final negotiation of the bill where the waitperson’s wage remains uncertain as the customer decides how generous they momentarily feel in the role of a surrogate employer. One is compelled to comply whatever the quality of the service. A true gratuity is then, perversely, that which you leave in addition to the customary tip rate.

Most businesses manage to at least pay their employees the minimum wage. Restaurants, however, somehow manage to benefit from a “tip credit” labor practice that permits them to pay their tipped workers a special sub-minimum wage. It’s up to the waitperson to make up the difference, relying on the largesse of their customers. Only if the employee’s tips fall short of providing a minimum wage does the employer have to provide the difference. Whether employees manage a consistent livable wage above that is not a concern of the business. If a shift is so slow that tip revenue will not likely underwrite the employer’s tip credit, superfluous waitstaff are sent home.

One table orders off the luncheon menu. The table next to them goes all out on entree offerings. Desserts the same for both. Both leave a tip of 20 percent. Why is the waitperson more highly compensated for serving one table and less so for the other? Serving a hamburger with fries takes no less skill or effort than serving a surf ‘n’ turf. A tray full of supersized sodas is far heavier than a tray of signature bar drinks. Meanwhile, in the back of the house the kitchen staff get paid the same whether preparing the most expensive offering or just dropping something into the fryolator. Go figure.

Gratuities rotely tied to meal cost and wages dependent on that premise serves everyone poorly. Instead of expressing hospitality,”Would you like something to drink before ordering?” often comes across as a barometer to assess where the total bill is headed and worth more than perfunctory attention.

The tradition of a gratuity was that of an unexpected and un-demanded gesture of appreciation, not a special subsidy to certain employers’ bottom line. It was employed as a reward system to assure best service on a return encounter or as an upfront incentivization so that the best accommodation might then be offered.

I dine out in a Maine that knows little of the world of tipping the maitre d’ so as to get the best table. Even at upscale eateries, simply asking for a better table seems to work fine. Here or away, tipping remains an ill-defined and capricious etiquette. Most of the time it’s uncertain as to whether tipping will even actually go to the intended server, especially if rolled into a credit card payment or subject to tip pooling, or whatever employer-employee arrangement might be in place.

Be that as it may, that is how the hospitality world presently works. If one can’t afford to leave a decent tip then one should simply stay home and serve themselves.

Though being excellent at one’s job might make it look easy, being a waitron is indeed hard work and should be compensated no differently than any other employment. To tip someone at a prescribed percentage because it’s understood that they’re insufficiently paid by their employer is a bizarre social acceptance of a unjust reality whose remedy is long overdue. Led by service industry workers, the “Fight For 15” movement is all about changing that reality.

Despite persistent fear-mongering, raising the minimal wage for tipped workers will not do away with tipping. It will simply give tipped workers the same rights under the law as all other workers. 55.9 percent of Maine voters understood that distinction in passing Ballot Question 4. In states and cities where a tip credit sub-minimum wage has been eliminated tipping has continued as before, and restaurant employment and sales growth has increased.

The practice of tipping as a perverse subsidy from consumers to employers, rather than as an unfettered actual gratuity to workers, remains a pervasive and inequitable labor practice, particularly here in Maine’s tourist dependent economy. Its class-underpinned reward system commonly confuses service with servitude, often promoting objectification of workers in a work culture rife with sexual harassment.

Our governor’s wife apparently didn’t suffer such when she waitressed last year in Boothbay Harbor, earning a much bandied $30 an hour. Good for her. For too many others it can be a demeaning reality where $30 an hour remains a rare, if ever, exceptional 60 minutes that doesn’t provide for a reliable living wage.

Gary Anderson lives in Bath.

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