Foodservers’ wages aren’t gratuitous

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An edited version of this article was originally published in the Capitol Hill Times.

The larger Seattle metro area is one of the most lucrative places in the country to be a foodservice worker, with an average hourly income of $12.47, second only to Boston and San Francisco. Seattle bartenders and waiters do slightly better, at $13.77 and $13.44 respectively, while our baristas and other counter-staff make only $11.36. [Note: these estimates are no longer accurate. Click through the links to see current BLS estimates.] All of these numbers include tips, meaning that Seattle foodservice workers depend on the decency of strangers for anywhere from a fifth to a third of their income.

Boasting 92 bars and 53 coffee shops, Capitol Hill is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of workers who rely on tips to pay their rent. Unsurprisingly, most of them are big fans of the practice. Benjamin Robert, a barista at Cafe Victrola, told me last year that between his wages and his tips, “I probably make more than $15 an hour.” Another barista at Espresso Vivace (who asked to remain anonymous) said that he’d rather not talk about the “sensitive subject” of tipping out of fear that public discussion might precipitate taxation.

Of course, foodservice workers aren’t the only ones who endorse tipping. Since wealthy Americans imported the practice from European aristocrats in the 19th century, tipping has transformed in the public eye from an anti-democratic insult to a rote social custom. No longer regarding gratuity as an incentive for workers to use “fawning for favors” as a career strategy, we now believe that tipping is good for workers, who make extra cash, and good for customers, who can reward good service and punish negligence and bad manners.

That’s a nice story which bears little semblance to reality.

First, tipping (like many economic incentives) rewards manipulation rather than hard work. Cornell University’s Michael Lynn has found that the quantity a customer tips has only a small relationship to how good or bad they found the service. Tip-size is affected, however, by cheap psychological tricks like kneeling beside the table or drawing a picture on the check. In other words, tipping encourages not improved service but rather flattery on the server’s side and vanity on the customer’s.

Tipping isn’t merely an inefficient incentive, however. When you zoom-out from looking at individual instances of tipping to looking at tipping as a social institution, you notice that it doesn’t actually add to a worker’s income; it just makes part of that income optional. In practice, there’s nothing “gratuitous” about gratuity: as any barista, bartender or waiter can tell you, tips are a very real and depended-upon portion of their income, and they’d seek work elsewhere if tipping suddenly ceased. So tips are part of a worker’s wage in the sense that workers reasonably expect and depend upon them. But tips are not part of a worker’s wage in the sense that the worker has no legal claim to them, even when they’ve already rendered their service. Imagine if we allowed this in other parts of the economy: “Here’s my rent. I know we agreed on $800, but I thought you were kind of a sullen landlord this month so it’s only $700. Here’s a real tip, sweetheart: try smiling.”

Tipping is also a powerful mechanism for perpetuating other types of social injustice. For example, African-Americans are stereotyped as being lower tippers than Whites, which incentivizes foodservice workers to give them inferior service. Regularly receiving inferior service could in turn incentivize some African-American customers to actually leave smaller tips–and lo, the self-perpetuating cycle of racial prejudice has another realm in which to thrive. Tipping also encourages the objectification of women (and some men), whose looks are often more lucrative than their service. Such objectification is even worse for women of color, who must conform to White standards of beauty if they want to make 20 percent. Replacing tipping with an equivalent wage, and listed prices that actually correspond to what customers are expected to pay, would deny expression to both these forms of bigotry.

Like chauvinism, tipping is a longstanding and seemingly benign institution in which a less-powerful group–foodservice workers–is cared for via the largess of a more-powerful group, customers. Yet even as it augments their actual income, tipping as an institution aids the exploitation of these workers because it makes a portion of their pay optional: a benevolent gift rather than an earned wage. It might make sense in a Downton Abbey-style aristocracy for a quarter of workers’ pay to come from the charity of those they serve, but a just and equitable society has no place for commerce in which payment for services rendered can be arbitrarily revoked by a grumpy (or racist) customer. If Capitol Hill wants to live up to its reputation for diversity and social justice, it can start by replacing contingent tips with guaranteed wages.

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One comment

  1. “African-Americans are stereotyped as being lower tippers than Whites, which incentivizes foodservice workers to give them inferior service.”

    I have a friend who was working in a restaurant over the summer and she hated serving black customers and tried to avoid it. This was because she believed they were difficult customers who tipped badly (her tips were often as much as her wage).

    I agree that the American tipping culture turns staff into beggars who keep pestering customers with false friendliness which both parties end up hating (I’ve been on both sides and disliked both). Tipping has more to do with the customer and their generosity than anything the staff do.

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