Curtain Raiser

Tips Are Not Optional, Colltalers

Hidden within the debate over the minimum wage in the U.S., which studies show, has lost so much of its value as to be unfavorably compared to the Great Depression era, is the large segment of workers who earn even less than the current $7.25 per hour. Your waiter will be right with you.
Without getting into the merit that, at such rate, a full time worker makes an average $15,000 a year, which is clearly poverty line-territory, what is often overlooked is the fact that the salary of most restaurant workers is made up of only a percentage of that minimum. The rest is compounded by their ability to earn tips, i.e., the kindness of strangers.
We could get here into a full nuanced analysis of how this works in America, and pretty much nowhere else, where workers are paid not by their employer, but by the employer’s customers. But as the overall debate is dominated by broad, and often inaccurate, strokes, much of such argument would be wasted.
For when a billionaire such as Charles Koch gets wide media exposure for disingenuously saying that even the existence of a minimum wage ‘hurts’ workers, and the Internet is abuzz with ‘independent’ voices arguing against tipping servers, we can see that nuance and accuracy are the first ones to go in this debate.
Before we get to why paying, er, tipping your waiter is not optional, and that if one really wants to discuss the fairness of the system, stopping adding gratuities to your restaurant bill is most definitely not the way to start it, let’s quickly go back to the incredibly shrinking wages in the age of the billionaire CEO.
A recent Forbes study found that some chief executives make over a thousand times their employees’ typical pay, in some cases, regardless if their company is making a killing in profits, or it’s actually tanking. When it comes to compensation package at the top, it seems, company performance is often not relevant.
The greatest example, of course, was the financial crisis of 2007, which brought the world to its knees almost exclusively because a few dozen Wall Street banks and financial concerns rigged the system so much that, as W.B.Yeats would put it, the center could no longer hold.
Everybody knows what came out of it: millions lost their savings, global unemployment spiked, economies of entire countries got ruined, and governments scrambled to print money and keep the system afloat. But no culprits were sent to jail, and in fact, most of them are now wealthier than ever.
We didn’t want to get into any parable of malfeasance here, but as we see that most of those same financial institutions have recovered so well, with no little help from tax payers’ money, while millions remain either unemployed or paid less than they need to survive, if ever, we simply couldn’t help it.
Recent studies, including one by the Department of Commerce, have shown that private-sector wage increases in the new century have been less than in any 10-year period since the WWII. As this has been a time for slashed government budgets, you know why workers couldn’t disagree more with Koch and his friends.
Then, there’s an often invoked saying, attributed to Karl Marx but probably completely apocryphal, proposing that capitalism aims at rewarding labor with gratuities in lieu of decent salaries. Since tipping is part of the American culture, many feel that whoever came up with the thought had definitely a point.
After all, how come the hospitality business is allowed to pay its workforce less than what the government mandate states, in itself a pittance as it is? At what point did the system break down so a whole category of professionals have been left out of even its flawed labor regulations?
Again, any thorough explanation of the issue would immediately lose readers, even if it’d mention Herman Cain, the colorful one-time CEO of the other NRA, and his efforts to shield the restaurant business from the rules affecting every other U.S. employer. Suffice to say that they’re only part of the problem.
Perhaps more disappointing are the other cogs of this big, unjust chain of lobby-driven regulations that ultimately force an entire class of professionals to literally hustle to compound wages through the whims of the tipping system. As such, most of those Internet voices cited above are wrong.
Along with a few high-end restaurants, that now decided that tipping is wrong but still won’t increase staff salaries, many have expressed misguided opinions on the matter, considering that they should not be under obligation to tip waiters, which may be correct, because the service is bad, which is utterly wrong.
What some choose to ignore is that, regardless of the service, which let’s face it, in reputable eateries all over big American cities, is mostly highly professional, these estimated three million workers have no idea how much, and if it’d even be enough, they will make at the end of the month.
To say that those who seem all too eager to stop tipping may have only a vague, uneducated guess about who Marx was would be almost as unfair as complaining about a meal to the person who delivered it to your table, and not to those whose business is to make and sell them to you.
We’re definitely for increasing the minimum wage in the U.S., which according to many economists, including Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, represents ‘good policy,’ and for ending the brutally unfair system of paying workers with tips.
But while the first is facing fierce opposition from most likely some of the same CEOs who broke the banks in 2008 and still profited from the crisis, the second may be even harder to come to fruition since it’s been successfully ‘boxed’ inside the overall issue. In other words, we’re not about to stop tipping, if we can help it.
And guess what? an informal and unscientific pool we’ve discretely conducted the other week, hinted that some of the best tippers are those who, themselves, don’t know how much money they’re going to earn, if any, at the end of the month. There’s probably a moral in all of that but we’ll abstain from spelling it out.
But who knows, maybe things are really heading in the right direction. Even fast-food restaurant workers, which for the most part, can’t even count on tips to make up their meager earnings, have been organizing and finding ways of achieving a bigger piece of the profit pie enjoyed by their rich employers.
So, perhaps the issue of tipping, and why it’s so absent-mindedly tossed as a synonymous for gratuity, is finally seeing the light of the day. Or heading to an incoming freighter, we’re not sure. If you do want to be certain, we only ask that you inform yourself before expressing an opinion. And for that, we thank you.
By the way, to say thank you and be polite is nice and dandy, but is no substitute for your gratuity, and a 20% of the total would be greatly appreciated. Even though that’ll never be required from anyone spending time at Colltales, it’s all but mandatory for those who dine out or order in. Be nice, tip your server. WC


3 thoughts on “Curtain Raiser

  1. WordsFallFromMyEyes says:

    Wesley, awesome article again. You write so well (malfeasance etc).

    $15K is definitely poverty territory – bad enough for a single person but I’d hate to imagine them a family man/woman.

    I thought tipping was meant to be 10%, so I’ve learned something today. And earning 1000 times your workers? DISGUSTING. Wrong.

    Great stuff, Wesley. Valuable to read/know.


  2. eremophila says:

    Some year ago, I was horrified to learn from a woman who’d lived and worked in the States, that she was under no circumstances allowed to discuss with her co-workers, what her wage was. It was considered a sackable offence to discuss/compare wages. Surely that’s a bullying situation? Keep the workers in the dark? Not far from slavery….


    • WordsFallFromMyEyes says:

      Excellent comment, Eremophila. It IS a bullying. We all have the right to know if we are being scammed by the boss.


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