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If restaurant servers get a minimum-wage hike, should you still tip 20 percent?

Server Grace Choi at Tosca Restaurant in 2015. (Scott Suchman/For The Washington Post)

You may have missed this news as President Trump’s racist tweetstorm rained down on the Squad in July, but the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, the first increase for those on the lowest rung of the U.S. workforce since 2009 . Tucked into the legislation, however, was something perhaps even more startling: a measure that would eliminate the sub-
minimum wage for tipped employees.

Media pundits and political prognosticators alike predicted that the Republican-controlled Senate would never green light a similar bill, and a recent report all but confirmed the forecasts. Still, the House vote was further evidence that the United States is losing its appetite for a lower minimum wage for tipped workers, who can earn as little as $2.13 an hour with the expectation that employers will make up the difference should tips not add up to the full minimum wage in that particular jurisdiction.

Seven states, including California and Minnesota, already require the same minimum pay for all workers, and other cities and states have been flirting with similar efforts to eliminate the two-tiered system. Last year, a majority of voters in Washington passed a ballot measure that would have ended the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers, but the D.C. Council repealed Initiative 77 amid pressure from the restaurant industry, which predicted doom and gloom should the law take effect.

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, the New York-based organization behind many of these campaigns for “one fair wage,” has no plans to give up its push to eliminate the lower minimum wage, which the group says leaves tipped workers vulnerable to sexual harassment, wage theft and other problems. These ongoing efforts may explain, in part, why a reader recently posed the following question to me:

If I’m in California, or if D.C. ever raises the minimum wage for tipped staff, do I still have to tip 20 percent?

Baked into that question, I think, is the suggestion that if restaurant servers earn the full minimum wage, diners are somehow off the hook when it comes to tipping. It’s a legitimate perspective given that, for decades, diners have been led to believe that tips were not really discretionary but mandatory. We were the ones, after all, largely responsible for a server’s pay. If that’s no longer the case — and restaurateurs must cover their own labor costs like, you know, every other industry — perhaps diners can ditch the calculators and tipping apps and just enjoy their meals.

It’s a valid take but not a particularly charitable one to restaurant servers.

You don’t need to tip for counter service. But here’s why you should.

Think about this in terms of other workers who provide a service. Hotel cleaning crews. Massage therapists. Tattoo artists. Cabdrivers (if not ride-hailing drivers). Coffee shop baristas. And on and on. They routinely make at least the minimum wage, and they routinely receive tips, too. We tip these workers for various reasons: We want to supplement their (sometimes) modest incomes. We want to reward their excellent service. We want to support a local business.

The same motivations would hold true for restaurant servers and busers, even if they were paid the full minimum wage. Why would we want to punish some of the hardest workers in the hospitality industry — people who handle every person who enters the dining room, no matter how insufferable or entitled — just because we had previously been required to contribute to their salary?

Plus, there’s another factor to consider: Restaurant servers, particularly in fine-dining establishments, are professionals, even though diners sometimes treat them as little more than pets trained to fetch whatever they desire. The best servers devote themselves to the study of wine, cuisine, hospitality, history and more. They may even learn Spanish to better communicate with the Central American cooks in the kitchen. These employees deserve your tips and patronage, if only to reinforce the idea that restaurant service is a profession, not a way station to a better job.

But here’s another reason to continue to tip: Because when there is no sub-minimum wage for tipped workers, when owners can no longer claim a tip credit to cover part of a server’s income, restaurants may be free to pool tips and split them with employees in the kitchen. Sharing tips with line cooks and dishwashers could go a long way toward retaining skilled workers in an industry with a notoriously shallow talent pool. Pooling tips also could help back-of-the-house employees make ends meet in big cities where living expenses are rising faster than wages.

Out of curiosity, I contacted a few people in states in which they don’t have a separate minimum wage for tipped workers. Diners still tip generously, they all told me. “I still tip, and I think most people do too,” emails Andrew Zimmern, chef, television host and Minnesota’s most famous eater.

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Sometimes diners don’t even have a say in the matter. Soleil Ho, restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, says that when she made a reservation at Maum, the Michelin-starrred Korean restaurant, the Tock reservation system automatically added a 20 percent “service charge.” She didn’t mind. She says millennials understand the need to tip.

“On a whole, our generation has worked in the service economy extensively,” says Ho. “I think people are pretty aware of what it takes to do the job.”

Eddie Wu, owner of Cook St. Paul in St. Paul, Minn., says tipping is ingrained restaurant culture, no matter how much a server makes. But, he adds, once customers understand they are not responsible for a server’s salary, they tend to reward good hospitality, the behaviors beyond job basics such as taking orders and refilling water glasses.

“The reason you get tipped is the hospitality,” Wu says. Bartenders, for example, don’t get tipped because “they’re giving you a whiskey. It’s because they listen to you and how terrible your day was.”

Dig deeper: Restaurant culture + Labor

Want to explore how the workforce affects your dining experience, and vice versa? Check out our curated list of stories below.

Understanding how dishwashers create a good restaurant experience

Dishwashers are the unsung heroes of the restaurant industry, but the median wage for the position is only $20,000 in the U.S.

Context matters: The ongoing debate about restaurant tips

People didn’t tip in the United States until after the Civil War, and even then it wasn’t widely embraced. Now, some say it’s how restaurants justify paying staff low wages.

Get smart about why cocktails are so expensive

A restaurant’s overall profit margin is about 4 to 6 percent, according to the National Restaurant Association. But cocktail profit margins are 15 to 25 percent.

How restaurant waiters have shaped dining

Over the past decade, waiters have gone from offering table-side decadence borrowed from European dining to being friendly menu guides.