A Facebook friend was offended by the presence of an attendant with a tip jar in an airport bathroom. “I felt harassed and examined and judged when I did not leave a tip or make conversation with the attendant,” she wrote, revealing herself to have zero experience being harassed, examined or judged. Many folks added a riposte sympathizing with her and making fun of anyone who had to earn their living minding a restroom. “It’s how she feeds her family,” I commented. My incredibly hardworking mother was a waitress, and I became one as soon as I turned 16. After almost 20 years surviving on tips, I understand what it’s like to be on the other side of that jar. Tipping is a demeaning custom. A worker’s compensation should not rest on somebody’s whim. Nor should she have to put up with insulting or handsy customers because she doesn’t want to endanger her pay. Tip-based compensation not only institutionalizes the examination and judgment of workers, it invites harassment, too.
Tipping absolutely should be replaced by fair wages. The regular federal minimum wage stands at $7.25 per hour, but for tipped workers, it’s just $2.13. While the regular minimum wage has risen by $3 since 1991, the tipped minimum wage hasn’t changed at all. People who work for tips are more likely to live in poverty. So until the system is overhauled, and all workers are given fair pay, your tips always should be large. If you can dine out, travel or get someone to clean your house, then you have discretionary income. Adding another $5 to the tip isn’t going to affect your standard of living, but it will make a big difference to the person serving you. That person almost certainly waits until her car’s gas gauge light comes on before pulling into the filling station. For $5, you can be a hero.
But when you do tip big, try not to think of yourself as a hero, lest you morph into a jerk. When my mother worked as as a waitress in a private club, the staff had to wear white gloves and line up like little tin soldiers as the officers of the club passed out the Christmas gratuities. The first year she worked there, she wondered – without any sarcasm whatsoever – if she should curtsey. No one should have to sit up and beg for a tip, but many customers think otherwise. I remember being lectured by a man who wanted his martini extra dry. “Wave the vermouth over the glass. Just let it whisper – or, I warn you, your tip will suffer.” Then there was a sardonic laugh and a mock wag of a finger to demonstrate that he was kidding. Mostly.
Here are two tips for dry martini snobs:
- The waitperson doesn’t make your drink.
- You will probably be served precisely what you want – straight gin.
Some people are making a case for refusing to tip because it is such a feudal way of compensating people. But for now, tipping is a fact in this fallen world, and many workers who make minimum wage or less depend on those extra dollars to avoid poverty. So if you use the injustice of the current system to avoid tipping, you’re not a reformer. You’re a jerk.
More specifically, you are a cheap jerk — in the manner of one fellow I dated ever so briefly. After taking me out for a lovely meal, my date insisted on paying the bill. So I offered to leave the tip, and put down about 25 percent. While he was willing to spring for lobster, he somehow felt a large gratuity was an unconscionable extravagance. When he thought I was preoccupied with putting on my coat, he slipped a couple of the singles I’d left on the table into his pocket. In other words, he stole from the waitress. He was handsome, smart and funny. I never went out with him again. He was obviously a jerk.
It has been 30 years since I’ve worked for tips. I agree with clients upfront about a fair price for my writing and editing services. My need for repeat business is sufficient incentive for me to work hard and well. Of course, there’s also integrity, pride and all that. Tipping, on the other hand, gives no credit to the woman who got up at 4:30 a.m., made her kids’ lunches and caught a bus so that she’d be standing behind a counter ready and smiling when you felt the need for a latté. It assumes that integrity and pride are unknown to her, and so each interaction must be incentivized in a demeaning way. She does her best every day and should be assured a living wage for it. It is the business of everyone who cares about basic fairness to make that happen. But large changes to compensation structures are going to take time. For now, whenever I see one, I put something extra into the tip cup. It doesn’t make me a hero. It’s just the price of not being a jerk.
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