Tipping Culture: Supporting a Corrupt System
Updated: Aug 29, 2022
In 2020, George Floyd died, and the white community at large discovered that racism still existed. I was not astonished at this. And after this revelation, systematic racism and critical race theory started to be discussed, and people wanted to fight these injustices by defunding the police protests and other social justice rallies. But tip culture slipped through the cracks, despite having direct connections to slavery. And after 2017, when the #MeToo spread nationally, society began to grasp how ingrained the male-female power dynamic is from Hollywood to law firms to restaurants. But, the customer-server dynamic was never adopted and is still rooted in sexist demeanors and behaviors.
The general toxicity throughout tipping culture affects servers and customers’ wallets, proven by Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration 2003 study, stating how tipping was not a compelling motivation for servers. Should servers deliver the highest quality service if customers are expected to tip an additional 15-30% of the check? How can servers properly do their jobs when minorities and foreign servers are treated worse than their male coworkers? Or when 70% of female servers say that the restaurant industry generates five times the average of sexual harassment claims per employee due to the standing imbalanced power dynamic between waitress and customer? The tipping scheme targets the wages and welfare of lower-class citizens, ultimately saving businesses money as customers pay their employees wages. This system complicates a server’s job as it gives their “employer” not their boss but on the whims of whichever patrons sit at their table. However, employers are able to scam their employees due to the Federal Tipped Minimum Wage.
The Federal Minimum Wage is the legal minimum an employer can pay a worker; for the US, it is $7.25, and only seven states have a higher minimum due to their laws. Other states abide by this $7.25 an hour. On the other hand, the Federal Tipped Minimum Wage is a staggering $2.13. After a waiter’s 8-hour shift, their paycheck will show $17.04 before tax. The government actively supports businesses in barely paid labor. (I think this is unpaid labor, but I don’t want the government to sue me for slander.) Historically, the United States has had a BIG problem with unrewarded work. If you haven’t heard, the labor behind the hard work that built this nation were slaves. The restaurant industry continues to profit off of the unpaid. By tipping, we are confirming that we stand with the employers. That we agree; workers are valueless. Tipping does not erase or undo the systemic racism within the system.
Tipping does not fix the structural problems of the restaurant industry, but it feeds into the situation. Problematically paid workers aren’t escapable in large cities. 70% of tipped workers are women and usually work in chain restaurants earning an average of $9 per hour; this wage includes tips. But some businesses have taken control of the situation and tried to get their servers tipped more by encouraging servers to sexualize themselves, especially around men, to produce more tips, feeding into an inappropriate power dynamic. Clark University student Elizabeth Rozmanith, a former Dominos employee, feels conflicted about tipping as “America’s business model…in terms of customer service heavily relies on tipping. And I don’t think the whole model is a good idea….[But as a Domino’s delivery driver] I heavily relied on tips because in the store you are paid minimum wage, which was $12.75…, but when I was on the road, I was paid less than $5/hour.” Rozmanith strongly believes that companies need to pay their customer service workers properly, rather than forcing them to rely on inconsistent tips from customers. In short, the Federal government permits businesses to abuse employees and customers, which sustains toxicity in the restaurant industry and US norms.
Nevertheless, despite the toxic tipping culture, the US Department of Labor states that out of seven of the lowest paying professions, four of the professions are tipped restaurant employees. Fundamentally, the federal government should demand that restaurants should adequately pay employees. This action would prove that workers–people–have value in this country, and misconduct would (hopefully) disappear from the industry.
But tipping culture has become even more toxic with technology. (I say this with disdain that I found this information from TikTok through Buzzfeed. Yes, I know, very Gen-Z of me. I hate it too, but that doesn’t take away from the facts.) Technology has severely impacted tipping, as the iPad register encourages high tip percentages. Suppose you haven’t been confronted with the glaring screen of an iPad asking for a tip. In that case, the general idea of the iPad works like a regular old register, except at the end of checkout, the iPad swivels a godforsaken swivel and asks for tips, ranging from 15% to 30%.
However, these registers are placed in cafes, coffee shops, and other minimal customer service places. But tipping is supposed to be for a service, like waiting tables, bringing bags to hotel rooms, or pushing wheelchairs at the airport. But now, a new tipping culture wants customers to tip for receiving a business’s product, like making coffees, tacos, or picking up takeout. TikTok users have noted, “I kept tipping at Yogurtland, and then I realized I was doing everything myself,” “I bought snacks at the airport, and the SELF CHECKOUT asked for a tip,” lastly, “What gets me is when they want a tip BEFORE you get your food or whatever. [I don’t know] if you even got my order right????” These schemes guilt as they force customers to click no tip in front of the often underpaid worker, all while implanting that they should be tipping 15%, 25%, 27%, and 30%, despite demanding this even if the client has done the work or prior to getting the product. Businesses are ingraining workers with mantras pronouncing that they deserve to be tipped but refuse to pay proper wages.
On the other hand, TikTok users say, “Without tips; I make $9/hr, so please let them spin that little iPad around because it makes a difference.” “When I was a server, we had to pay a percentage of our food sales to [the] kitchen tip out. So to-go orders cost us money if we didn’t get a tip.” And, “we pack your food, make sure you have utensils, sauces, special requests, etc. [It’s] not always necessary, but remember that.” When I worked as a hostess at a classy Upper East Side restaurant, it was my job to prepare takeout orders, note any specialties, and supply utensils. Being a restaurant worker means preparing food for all meal options, even takeout. But the other TikTokers voice they need tips because they are not paid substantial wages. Currently, tipping is used as a bandage to solve structurally underpaid workers, a colossally systematic problem that needs macro and micro plans to fix.
In order to resolve this, there should be a national server’s union (as 1.3% of restaurant workers are unionized), an increase in The Federal Minimum Wage, or drastic social repercussions for businesses if they treat their employees this way. Tipping is a problem to support another problem.
For the first time in my life, I went to restaurants multiple times a week and exposed myself to non-toxic tipping culture. I ate guilt-free, knowing that dishwashers, cooks, and servers were all legally afforded the right to sufficient wages. And at the end of the night, my bill had a minimal table charge, and I could choose to tip; I was not pressured, guilted, or expected into tipping at restaurants. And I never once was asked to tip for a product-based service. But in the US, tip culture has a negative historical bearing on organized oppression, which continues in our modern day lifestyles. As the government actively partakes in supporting capitalistic means, workers are not getting paid livable wages, so customers are forced to close the gap. Despite the quality of customer service, and even in the absence of service, customers are societally expected to show monetary gratitude. Socially, we need to reconsider who tipping is really helping, as tipping permits the restaurant industry to abuse its staff while profiting from their hard work while encouraging racism, sexism, harassment, and exploitation.