by Casey Jaywork
- The Capitol Hill Times -
The Seattle metropolitan 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. All of these numbers include tips, meaning that Seattle foodservice workers depend on the decency of strangers for one-fifth to one-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. Not surprising, most of them are big fans of the practice. Benjamin Robert, a barista at Cafe Victrola, told me 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, but bears little semblance to reality.
First, tipping (like many economic incentives) rewards manipulation rather than hard work. Cornell University’s Michael Lynn found that the quantity that a customer tips has 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, teenagers are stereotyped as being lower tippers than adults, which incentivizes foodservice workers to give them inferior service. Regularly receiving inferior service could in turn incentivize some teenage customers to actually leave smaller tips – and lo, the self-perpetuating cycle of 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. Replacing tipping with an equivalent wage, and listed prices that 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 who 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 biased) 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.
In 2012, The Capitol Hill Times posted another editorial about tipping—an American’s take after spending half-a-dozen years living in Europe. Read that here.