Yesterday in The New York Times, restaurant critic Pete Wells made his case for doing away with the tipping system. He's hardly the first person to make this argument. In recent months, Slate has run articles about getting rid of the practice, as has Business Insider. There's even a MoveOn.org petition to abolish tipping.
All of these articles make valid points; there are many reasons to argue against the tipping system. But most of them ignore the very basic problems with abolishing tipping in America, the most difficult of which is our insanely low minimum wage.
In his article, Wells uses many examples of high-end restaurants that have either done away with tipping or have wrapped it into a service charge that is non-negotiable. There are restaurants in L.A. that do that as well — Trois Mec charges a 18% service fee which you pay when you purchase your ticket. As a model, this idea can work for very expensive restaurants. But the truth is that most tipped employees in this country are not working at very expensive restaurants.
Waiting tables remains one of the few blue collar jobs in America where you might reasonably expect to make $30 an hour during a busy breakfast or dinner rush, even in a less expensive restaurant. If tipping were abolished, you can bet the local burger bar will not be paying their workers $30 an hour.
Apart from those very high-end restaurants, who would do so? As someone who made very good money waiting tables in a very crappy dive bar as a college student, I can tell you the sleazy owners of that bar would certainly not have paid me a wage commensurate with the tips I made. Per Se is one thing — your local diner is another, particularly in this economy where work is hard to find and employers have the upper hand.
Australia, like much of Europe, has a tipping culture of sorts, in that you might leave $5 or $10 on a $150 check. They also have a minimum wage of $15.96 an hour. The going rate for a decent waiter or bartender is above $20 an hour, and higher than that for the true service professionals. (I'll also say here that service in Australia has, until very recently, been pretty terrible. Why bother trying to please when you're making the same money regardless?)
Many of the arguments made about abandoning tipping have to do with leveling the playing field between the front and the back of the house: Cooks often resent that waiters make more money than they do, and many restaurants that charge a service fee rather than relying on tipping distribute that fee equally among cooks and servers. You know what else would solve that problem? Raising the minimum wage. Cooks make decent money in Australia as well.
See also: Are Tipping Percentages Going Up?
This isn't necessarily an argument for raising the minimum wage — though that's an important argument to make. The point is that minimum wage in the U.S. is not going to be $15 an hour any time soon.
Arguing for the abolition of tipping is all well and good when you're talking about very high-end restaurants, and there are obvious flaws with the system. But if you think that big chain restaurants are going to start paying servers better wages just because people stop tipping, you're delusional. They're going to pay the least amount possible as mandated by law and the economy — tips or no tips.
Getting rid of tipping is a nice idea. But arguing for its abolition without taking into account the very real circumstances of millions of American workers, and therefore without addressing the underlying conditions of our culture, economy and policies, is — at best — shortsighted.
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