When you become an expat and choose to live abroad, you begin to question certain cultural norms. Growing up in America, tipping is an ingrained custom that is often questioned by outsiders. In fact, some cultures consider tipping offensive. It implies that you assume the server doesn’t earn enough to support themselves. However, for American servers, this is a reality. Since restaurants can pay their staff below minimum wage, servers depend on their customers to supplement their income. Unfortunately, this leaves people in a vulnerable position and susceptible to discriminatory practices. Here are just a few reasons why we need to end tipping culture in America.
Working for Less than Minimum Wage
As a former server, let me tell you what it’s like to work for less than minimum wage. In my state, the minimum wage is $9.00 an hour. But, restaurants only pay you $2.13 an hour. Because we rely on tipping culture, they expect your tips to cover the difference between the actual minimum wage and the pittance they pay you.
In most cases, servers and front house staff will usually make much more than this because of tips. When I worked as a server and bartender, there were some nights I would walk out with over $200 from a six hour shift. Other nights, I would have to work doubles and maintain grueling hours just to break the minimum wage threshold. It depended on several factors such as the kind of restaurant, day of the week, major events in the city, and your customers. With this kind of inconsistency, it made it difficult to budget, and some months, to pay the bills.
Tipping Culture Undercuts Livable and Fair Wages
Although we typically associate tipping culture with the restaurant and food service industry, it has become expected for nearly every service imaginable. Not only do we tip wait staff, but also our hair dressers, taxi drivers, baby sitters, dog walkers, landscapers, and doormen, just to name a few. Tipping no longer reflects the quality of service. Instead, it shows that employers place the burden on their customers rather than pay their staff fair wages.
Standard tipping culture requires 15-20% gratuity. However, the amount servers earn is completely subjective to the customer’s mood. So, if you are serving someone who already has a bias toward you, it will negatively impact your livelihood. Since those in the service industry must rely on tips, it leaves them more vulnerable to discrimination and harassment. Unfortunately, we are still facing biases based on race, sex, age, and other social factors.
When their salaries depend on compensation from customers, it can facilitate an environment where serving staff must choose between their ethics and their paychecks. I can recall dozens of times in which I was told to ‘brush off’ unwanted advances or else be punished by not receiving a tip. Asking someone to violate their principles shows how little we value them as people or care how it affects them personally or financially. Every human being deserves to be treated with dignity. And that begins by paying them fair wages.
End Tipping Culture to Hold Employers Accountable
Recently, there has been some momentum to end tipping culture. Spurred on by restaurants like Joe’s Crab Shack, some eateries have attempted to eliminate it by automatically including gratuity and service fees. However, tipping is deeply ingrained in the American mindset. People would rather put that extra dollar towards a tip than increased menu prices. In fact, they abandoned this model and returned to tipping because their online ratings dropped. Even though the final cost for their meal was approximately the same, people feel they have more control if they can determine how much they leave for their servers.
While tips have been enough to sustain servers in the past, COVID-19 has revealed several fatal flaws in the system. It has impacted food service workers more than any other industry because people stopped dining in and leaving tips. In some areas of the country, foot traffic is down 60% which in turn directly affects food service workers’ ability to support themselves. Although they are still required to perform the same work, their primary source of income no longer sees the need to leave a tip unless there is a face-to-face interaction.
Instead of complaining that people should return to work and be happy to receive any wages, it is time to hold employers accountable to their staff. If the restaurant and bar industry want to see their workers return, they need some guarantee that they will receive a steady salary to cover their cost of living.
Adopting More Sustainable Models
A few states, like California and Washington have already eliminated tip credit. But, many restaurants that tried to transition away from tipping culture have reverted back to this model. Since it is a cultural norm that doesn’t appear to be going away, we need to normalize sustainable models that ensure livable wages.
Some restaurants have implemented new models that show promise. First, restaurants could offer the best of both worlds. They could pay servers full minimum wage with tips on top. Another option is to keep menu prices the same, but include an automatic and separate service charge for their staff. One of the most progressive models I came across was a salary based on sales. Servers earn a percentage of individual sales and kitchen staff earned a percentage of the total shift sales. Owners who adopted this pay scale said their employees were more incentivized to provide better and faster service. Since the idea is based on the fact that if you sell more, then you can earn more, everyone is more motivated to work more efficiently. Finally, the federal and state governments could offer tax breaks or incentives to business owners who adopt no-tipping models.
If we want to change the public’s perception of tipping, we need to have everyone on board. It starts by having a reason for people to change. Because at the end of the day, the high earning days can’t justify the lows. Everyone deserves the ability to make a fair and steady wage. But, there will never be change until people see that the system is broken and demand better.
Jenny Smedra is an avid world traveler, ESL teacher, former archaeologist, and freelance writer. Choosing a life abroad had strengthened her commitment to finding ways to bring people together across language and cultural barriers. While most of her time is dedicated to either working with children, she also enjoys good friends, good food, and new adventures.