Before becoming a full-time freelancer, I labored at many jobs: crime reporter, arts editor, short order cook, pizza delivery driver, pothole-patcher, and bookseller. But the most lucrative job I’ve ever had was waiting tables in Portland, Oregon. This was largely thanks to a state mandate requiring employers to pay my fellow servers, bartenders, and myself a full-scale minimum wage in addition to tips.
I was fortunate. I was able to luck into a full-time job that paid my bills; it seemed too good to be true. Serving was my most lucrative career choice, but the work, while often fun, was hard. Carrying around two carafes of coffee for six hours a day five days a week takes its toll—and it never made me rich. It did, however, give me breathing room. And while true that serving can, at least in Oregon, provide a livable wage for those lucky enough to work in a popular restaurant, it should also serve as a warning sign that positions in other sectors—retail, manual labor, publishing—are vastly underpaid.
That said, tipping can be problematic, primarily because the people in the back of the house who make everything run—line cooks and dish washers—aren’t entitled to a penny of those tips. And while it’s true their minimum wages are higher than a server or bartender’s—those wages often start at $12 to $15 an hour—front-of-house employees make far more than their BOH co-workers over the course of the year.
There are pros to tipping, and plenty of cons too, which begs the question: Should we just get rid of it altogether? Let’s dig in.
Honestly, there’s really only one pro-tipping argument: Tips provide a path to a livable wage. That arts editing job I had? During my best year as a server, I made about $15,000 more than I ever did as an editor, and I worked about 20 fewer hours each week. Even then, I was never swimming in money.
But it ain’t all roses in the Rose City. Tipping has plenty of drawbacks.
Why do we have tipped positions anyway? Many countries have ensured that servers, valets, taxi drivers, and other similarly tipped employees earn a livable wage without tips—so why don’t we? The answer is (surprise!) racism. One of the first major companies to adopt a tipping policy was the Pullman Company, which used it to guilt 19th-century passengers into tipping its low-waged porters, which in turn subsidized the wages the employer didn’t want to pay. And guess who those porters were? If you answered freed slaves, give yourself a cookie. Restaurants would soon follow suit, and we’ve been stuck with this ugly legacy ever since.
Another con—at least in other states—is that the minimum wage is kept artificially low under the theory that any tips accumulated over the course of a shift will bring employees up to minimum wage by the end of the day. Oregonian servers and bartenders are lucky. Right now, they earn $11.25 per hour before tips. But at the same time, the minimum wage for tipped employees in 18 states is $2.13 an hour. And would you be surprised if I told you that about half those cheap-o states are former members of the Confederacy?
No matter what servers in other states are tipped, they’ll ostensibly be taxed at whatever their state’s minimum wage is, even when stiffed. In those states, it’s Pullman 2.0—with (maybe) less racism.
So should we continue to tip, or 86 the practice altogether? I guess that depends on what kind of world we want to live in. Several Portland restaurants have tried going tipless by opting to raise prices in order to pay everyone a living and equitable wage. All but a few have bailed on the idea because when you get down to it, the people who like tipping the most—besides servers—is the public. Rightly or wrongly, tipping makes people feel like they’re in control of the service they’ll receive.
Personally, I like knowing that servers and bartenders can make enough money to live comfortably and maybe even splurge on an occasional vacation. But that doesn’t mean I think they should make twice or even three times as much as the people in the kitchen, who, let’s face it, work just as hard, and probably harder.
Should the industry ultimately choose to go tipless, you can count on one thing happening: price increases. If you think menu prices are high now, just wait till 2022, when that minimum wage is in full effect.
I’ve been told by chefs that the minimum wage hike (which is good!) is going to throw a wrench into the works—and servers, bartenders, and their tips have nothing to do with it.
Consider this: If a chef’s dishwasher is making $14.75 an hour, their line cook’s going to want more. So will their sous chef. By 2022, the minimum wage for a sous chef could be as high as $18 an hour, maybe even $20. All because the dishwasher—who, frankly, keeps the whole operation humming—will finally make a fair wage.
In the end, it seems likely that the tip-or-not-to-tip debate will slowly and quietly do away with itself. The minimum wage will continue to rise. Menu prices will rise along with them. Tipped serving jobs won’t go away entirely, but with the rise of local fast-casual concepts, there’s going to be far fewer of them.
So to all my fellow servers out there: Tips may not be long for this world—so smoke ’em while you got ’em.