Tipping puts waiters at the mercy of greedy bullies

Tipping puts waiters at the mercy of greedy bullies

by Leonardo Castaneda

T02_04_13_Opinion_Tipping_Reddithe Internet has a funny way of turning average Joes and couch potatoes into armchair crusaders. A prime example of online vigilantism came when a waitress at an Applebee’s in St. Louis received a rather unique note on a receipt. On it, a customer who identified herself as a pastor scratched out the automatic 18 percent gratuity—added because she came with a party of 20—and instead wrote, “I give God 10 percent, why do you get 18?”

As far as we know, the waitress on the receiving end of the impressive display of unchristian greed took the affair in stride. Her coworker, however, found the note Internet-worthy and posted it on social sharing site Reddit. The rest of the drama played itself out exactly the way anyone who’s ever been on the Internet would expect. With just the signature to work with, amateur sleuths identified the customer as Alois Bell. Faced with the full anger of the online community, a notoriously vicious bunch, Bell said every single person at Applebee’s should be fired. Why she didn’t demand the entire company shut down on the spot—because why not—eludes me. Still, Bell did manage to get the waitress who posted the picture online fired.

The moral of this story isn’t that people who don’t tip are misers—which they are—or whether Applebee’s was justified—which it wasn’t—in firing a hardworking waitress just because a customer got called out for being cheap. The real lesson is that tipping is a scam where waiters and waitresses are at the mercy of bullies such as Bell and restaurant owners get away with forcing customers to directly subsidize their employee’s wages.

The way wages work in the U.S. is simple. The federal government sets a bare minimum anyone can pay an employee, currently $7.25 per hour. Each state can then set its own minimum higher, which is why no Californian gets paid less than $8. However, people who work in jobs where they may earn more than $30 a month from tips can be paid an alternative minimum wage, set by the federal government at $2.13 back in 1991. California and a handful of other states don’t allow this tipped wages minimum. But drive a few hours east and the waitress serving you coffee at Denny’s in Yuma, Ariz. makes $3 an hour, which isn’t even enough to buy a stack of pancakes.

In theory, if a worker doesn’t earn enough in tips during a given hour to make minimum wage, the employer fills the gap. This means the employer is off the hook in paying its own workers unless absolutely necessary. Even Mr. Krabs would blush at the injustice. If a waiter is lucky and the customers are generous, maybe they will make a living wage. If he or she is unlucky and has customers such as Bell, it’s back to minimum wage and treading water, at or below the federal poverty line.

No one should have to live with this massive wage instability. Week to week, a waiter should be able to look at how many hours he or she is working and know how much money will come on payday. We wouldn’t put anyone else’s livelihood almost entirely up to customer satisfaction. Pilots don’t get paid less at the end of the week if they have a couple of turbulent flights, and a doctor wouldn’t earn less for an operation if the patient thought the stitches were a little crooked. Of course, there’s a case to be made for tips as incentives for better service. Tips should be rewards for outstanding service, not a requirement because the restaurant owner doesn’t want to pay fair wages.

And here we find the real winners from tipping: the owners. If they’re lucky, customers easily pay more than 70 percent of their servers’ salaries. Even if tips don’t cover the full minimum wage, customers still subsidize a large part of it.

Of course, most restaurants would balk at the idea of paying waiters and waitresses a living wage. Even in California, where they automatically earn $8 an hour, a full-time worker would earn a little more than $16,600 a year, minus taxes. Even with tips—which are also taxed—it’s hardly enough to scrape by. But if restaurants had to pay workers $10 an hour, it’s possible many of them would go out of business, to which I say, “Too bad.”

If the only way for a business to stay afloat is to pay employees less than a third of the federal minimum wage while forcing customers to directly cover the rest, then it’s time for a new business model. If a waitress at Denny’s has to make $3 an hour and pray for good tips just so I can have unlimited $4 pancakes, then the human cost is too high.

What we need is a model where waiters’ wages are factored into food costs at restaurants and no one is required or even expected to tip. Maybe then, a tip can go back to being a rare sign of appreciation for excellent service and men and women working service jobs can have the financial stability they deserve.