Tipping is a common courtesy that everybody needs to respect when they go out to eat, no questions asked.
To most people, this is a fairly inane thing to say. Virtually all of us understand that we should tip our servers at restaurants and others in the service industry. That doesn’t mean the tipping system is without its problems.
Tipping should be perfect in theory; reward your server for going above and beyond, providing an incentive for the server to do a good job, which in turn ensures that you have the highest quality service. Everybody should win, in a perfect world at least.
However, in reality, this has justified restaurants paying their servers a lower wage, has further contributed to the gender and racial pay gap and is often treated like hush money – buying server’s silence on issues like not getting paid breaks, precarious hours, being understaffed and overworked, workplace harassment, unionization, the list goes on.
In Ontario, the minimum wage for “liquor servers” is $12.20 an hour. The general minimum wage is $14.00. While neither of these are living wages, to have a backsliding scale on what is already a poverty wage seems ridiculous to me. This seems to only benefit the restaurants and not the staff or patrons. At the very least “liquor servers” need to be paid the general minimum wage and ideally, this would be a living wage tied to inflation.
While some may argue that this will only drive up the cost of going out to eat, I believe that the relative increase in the cost would be worth ensuring a liveable base wage for all workers. Especially given that the increase would be virtually unnoticeable to any individual customer.
Hypothetically, if a restaurant has 100 customers an hour, you would likely have three servers working at any given time, as the average ratio of server to customer is 1:33. If these three servers were given a raise of $1.80, giving them a wage of $14.00 an hour, this would only require the restaurant to make an extra five cents an hour on those 100 customers. Even if they were given a living wage, about $18.00 an hour in Ontario, that would only require the restaurant to make an extra 17 cents an hour on those 100 customers.
While this is a simplistic example, it still clearly shows that the cost would be virtually unnoticeable to you as a customer and that restaurants have no excuse for not paying their serving staff a living wage.
There have been several studies into tipping and how it plays out in practice and the results may not be so surprising. While in theory tipping is supposed to be based on merit, it’s been found that there is little correlation between the quality of service and the size or percentage of the tip given.
In reality what plays a bigger role are qualities that the server can’t control; their race, age, gender, attractiveness and various other inherent characteristics have been found to be the biggest predictors of tip percentage. White female servers were found to take in the most from tips, while people of colour, particularly men though women as well, took in considerably less.
This isn’t to say that any particular server is undeserving of the tips they receive, but there needs to be a concerted effort made to address this blatant example of racism, sexism and inequality. The goal shouldn’t be to pit servers against one another as this only allows the owners to run away with all the money — but it should be to ensure they are all be lifted up and treated more fairly.
So often I’ve heard from friends and family who have worked in service that they never get to take a break, they have highly precarious hours, they are consistently spoken to and treated inappropriately by both other staff and customers and that they really have no recourse for any of this. The fact that they are free to take in as many tips as they can is meant to “balance this out”, but that sounds more like hush money than anything else.
Recently, the staff at the Rainforest Cafe in Niagara Falls secured their first contract after voting to form a union over a year ago. The contract addresses issues like poor working conditions, the mishandling of their tips, as well as providing an avenue to have their workplace discrimination and sexual harassment claims heard and dealt with properly.
This shows that the idea that earning more tips makes up for their lower minimum wage, having highly precarious hours, not being able to take breaks and being harassed on the job really is just a false choice set up by restaurant owners and management. The workers at the Rainforest Cafe show that you can have your cake and eat it too and servers everywhere should try and follow in their footsteps.
For customers, I’m not sure exactly what recommendation I can make. Under the current circumstances, tipping isn’t just the nice thing to do but is necessary to make up for the poverty wages that restaurants pay to their servers. We should all try to be more aware of our racial, gender-based and other biases to ensure that we actually tip based on merit.
We do have an obligation to treat all workers with respect and dignity, servers included, though there is only so much that can be done on the individual level. What we really need to do is encourage unionization in the service industry and fight for a fair minimum wage, one that is equal and liveable for all workers.
Universal action on this front can only be undertaken by the government. Restaurants have made it clear that they are more than happy to pay their workers poverty wages and to exploit them for all they are worth. So if this issue is important to you, make sure to vote, advocate and fight for workers whenever you can, so that we can guarantee respect and dignity for everyone.