The Absurdity of Gratuity: Why Our Culture of Unpaid, Tipped Work is Bad for Our Society
Last week, I read a thoughtful article on this site by Jamal Frederick entitled “Tipping While Black- The Struggles of a Black Barman.” I encourage you to read it. It offers keen insight into the racial attitudes and discrepancies characteristic of tipped service work. It also reinforced the strong opinions I have developed about the industry in general.
Many young Americans, and probably most of the people reading this, work in the service industry. I only recently escaped the crazy game myself. I never found it degrading. What I do now is far more so. Nor did I not make enough money. I always walked away with more than enough to drink and cause trouble. As a single guy with few hard skills in a big city it was a perfect job. After looking around I found this is not the case for everyone.
Think of an industry that is permitted to assume that the financial security of an employee is shouldered by the charity of customers. Let me be explicit. Not sales positions on commission or other occupations where pay is based on performance. I’m talking about a situation where a customer can receive goods or services and the people providing them get paid only if the customer decides, voluntarily, to pay significantly more for them. For those of us who believe in the idea of fair pay for an honest day’s work this sounds like distilled absurdity. There is a collective inconsistency of morality and shared values in our uniquely American tradition of tipped labor.
Tipped workers suffer the most from the instability of the tipped wage. Those of you, especially the young and single living in San Francisco, New York or another wealthy metropolitan area, are probably the most likely to find this contention ridiculous. Many of you make (or know people who make) hundreds of dollars a night serving food and drink. But this standard industry practice of allowing certain workers to depend solely on customer donation does not just apply to regions like yours. Truck stop diner waitresses and dive bar tenders in rural and more impoverished areas also have no guaranteed income from their employer. Some do well but many are stuck in one of the few jobs near them and struggle to make ends meet.
Most restaurant workers are not eligible for benefits like paid sick days and time off, or unemployment and health insurance. With a gigantic portion of the national workforce employed in this way, millions of workers are one illness or family emergency away from financial catastrophe.
There is also a surety of unfair pay in this line of work. Customer prejudice and bias guarantee that different workers will earn a different wage for the exact same work. Much of the disparity in pay is directly linked to one’s gender, race or age. Aside from being morally repugnant this is also ILLEGAL in almost every other industry.
Beside the economic failures of this arrangement there is also an ingrained offensive assumption. Somehow we have decided that some workers’ toil is worthless to their employer. The people that bring us our food and beverages only deserve to be paid when they inspire philanthropy. This is not only insulting but contrary to human nature. We may seek an ideal of generosity but no one truly wants to pay more than they have to.
The customer is also a victim of this preposterous system. As Mr. Frederick explained in his article, certain customers are assumed to be less generous than others. I learned during my stint in the field that even the most fair minded can succumb to the ugly thinking of racial bias. As pattern seeking animals we look for trends instead of dealing with situations individually. Since ethnicity and gender are the most readily apparent traits that we can discern about one another, it often becomes the basis for how we think about others. This unevolved instinct is exacerbated in a stressful setting in which people are trying to earn their living and the prospect of unpaid work looms darkly over the interaction.
Whether intentional or subconscious this breeds antagonism and causes some customers to receive lower quality service than others. It may seem inconsequential that some people get better service than others but it is far from it. The brave men and women of the Civil Rights Movement endured violence, humiliation and intimidation simply for the right to sit at a lunch table and receive proper service for their money. The gains from this important work are dialed back by the culture of mutual resentment in tipped work.
Owners and Management
Every good business owner understands the value of a quality employee. No enterprise can thrive without them. If employees are overworked because they can’t take time off, or are dealing with financial insecurity they become less dependable and effective. It would seem that not having to pay your employees is a boon to business, but restaurants are notorious for high employee turnover and the costs involved in managing a fluctuating and disgruntled workforce shouldn’t be discounted.
What can be done?
While the problems surrounding this issue are complex and many of them would require passing laws, an overhaul of the industry and a change in the culture, there is at least one small step that can be taken to ease them. Simply raising the cost of each menu item by a certain percentage (between 15-20%) and giving the server that percentage of what they sell on each bill in a paycheck could reduce employee insecurity while protecting profitability. On the bill, a simple notice that reads, “Your server has already received X% of this bill but if you feel you have received exceptional service feel free to offer further gratuity,” would ensure that customers aren’t duped, employees are paid fairly and properly motivated, and management doesn’t have to pay for down time. Other strategies like demanding minimum wage and benefits are laudable but face tough opposition from workers and owners alike. At least this one ends the insecurity and unfairness of the tip without undue pressure on management.
It may seem silly to harp on something few seem concerned with. Many people live well in this industry and it provides many jobs. Like with anything else there are winners and losers. The banality of the topic conceals its importance. Although I find the economics of this to be problematic, I am more concerned by the cancerous cultural impact of free labor and its reverberations.
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