The many ugly faces of our tipping culture

Aki Guomundsdóttir // Columnist
Illustration by Juliana Vieira

“Mr. Blue: You don’t care if they’re counting on your tips to live?

Mr. Pink: [rubbing his middle finger and thumb together] You know what this is? The world’s smallest violin playing just for the waitresses.

Mr. White: You don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. These people bust their ass. This is a hard job.

Mr. Pink: So is working at McDonald’s, but you don’t see anyone tip them, do ya? Why not? They’re serving you food. But no, society says don’t tip these guys over here, but tip these guys over here. That’s bullshit!” –Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs

There is no topic in the food industry more divisive than tipping. Like anything that exacerbates inequalities, it divides us into winners and losers, and in such extremes, it becomes difficult to imagine a compromise.

As a cook, I’ve long been biased and bitter knowing that when working in busy restaurants, kitchen staff will always get the short end of the stick when it comes to tips.

They’re always left to wonder how at the end of an insanely busy day, they walk away with $10 in tips, which is probably the equivalent tip of a server’s or bartender’s one-minute effort of opening and serving a $50 bottle of wine.

Chronically underpaid cooks keep quitting and any suggestion to give them a better cut of the tips (and give them the right to a meal, to a break, to vacation, to a life… so they won’t quit), elicits a dismissive reply such as “we can’t simply give everyone more money… it needs to be a meritocracy.”

Good luck explaining the meritocracy concept to really good, really experienced cooks who have seen no raises in years. Explain to them that the brand new 19-year-old server (regardless of how good they may be at their job) is already meriting an hourly rate (with tips) two to three times higher than theirs. Yes, even if they work a lot less hours and may not make as much money at the end of the month.

Our tipping culture also essentially works like a black market, distorting wage statistics to the point that we have no reliable data on the median total income of tipped workers.

Not surprisingly, according to a 2012 Toronto Star article, “an auditing of 145 servers in four restaurants by CRA mentioned in the report uncovered that among 145 staff audited, CAN $1.7 million was unreported”. A 2015 article by The Atlantic cited a report estimating USD $11 billion of annual unreported income in the US. Given the bureaucratic impossibility of auditing every single restaurant, we’re left to accept that most of that unreported income will simply go unnoticed and untaxed.

Given the unreliability of tipped income statistics, we’re also left to infer that servers either have it really good or really bad. We know it’s a discriminatory system, but by not actively talking of reform, we’ve conformed and are “okay” with a young, sexy, white, blonde server making three times as much money as an overweight, middle-aged, ethnic minority server.

Or as Mr. Pink so eloquently put it in Reservoir Dogs, why are servers and bartenders tipped so handsomely, while cooks, bakers, baristas, fast-food workers… are often not tipped much if anything at all?

It’s not the system that’s discriminatory, it’s the customers, we tell ourselves. Ain’t nothin’ we can do, right? Also, we seem okay with the fact that a young sexy server or bartender may make twice as much more money than paramedics or teachers and pay less taxes by not declaring half (or more?) of their income.

We’re also okay with the thought that a different server working part-time at a poorly managed, struggling restaurant is getting sent home early every day with $40 a night, sinking further into student loan debt, credit card debt and housing insecurity.

Since some benefit so handsomely on tips at the expense of others, opinions vary widely on the feasibility of abolishing tipping altogether on the models of, well, most developed countries in the world, really, where these jobs are seen as careers (with long-term stability, living wages or salaries and benefits) and not temporary jobs.

Pro-tipping advocates will often argue that higher prices and higher wages would be unfair to customers because, “if the service is bad and we’re automatically tipping, that’s not fair.”

Living wages should not be seen as automatic tipping, but simply as fair payment for a service. In the case of truly bad service, you can always take it up with management. But just as you cannot interfere with the income of a shitty doctor or politician if you think they’re not doing a good job, there’s no reason you should have the right to punish someone’s wages when you see fit. There’s something vaguely elitist with wanting the privilege to interfere with the livelihood of “lowly servants”.

Tip-dependent income clouds statistics, distorts the economy, engenders major tax evasion, perpetuates discrimination based on gender, age, and race and creates an unhealthy conflict between the haves and have-nots in the service industry. As a deep-rooted illness in our culture, it’s unlikely that things will change for a few years, but it’s about time to start studying the alternatives.


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