Can We Have a National Conversation About Tipping?

Source: iStock
When the dust settles from the latest Applebee's PR fiasco, the U.S. will most likely go back to business as usual. That is to say, servers in virtually every walk of life will continue to deal with bad tippers, rude customers that feel the need to mistreat wait staff, and holier-than-thou restaurant guests like Pastor Alois Bell. Things don't have to stay the same though - especially if we use this incident as a springboard to begin a national conversation about the restaurant industry and about tipping.

A good portion of restaurant-going patrons have no problem tipping - and know how to tip. On average, most people pay 15% for adequate service. That percentage goes up or down based on the server and how the meal experience went. I've been known to pay 20-25% when a server has gone above and beyond in their service. According to Dr. Michael Lynn though, huge swaths of people don't even know that much about how tipping works:
National surveys indicate that about one-third of the adult population in this country is unaware that they are expected to tip 15 to 20 percent of the bill in restaurants. Knowledge about the restaurant tipping norm is even lower for some groups of people (such as foreigners and ethnic minorities) and in some geographic regions. This represents a problem for restaurant managers because people who are unaware of the restaurant tipping norm generally tip less than those who are familiar with it and the small tips left by the former group can lower server morale, discourage servers from giving good service to those customers, and increase server turnover.
Source: ROC United
Typically, most servers rely on tips to make up anywhere from 85-100% of their actual take home pay. The minuscule wage restaurants are legally allowed to pay servers - ranging anywhere from $2.13 (the federal minimum for tipped workers) up to around $3-4 per hour - is almost always eaten up by taxes. Add to that the cost of purchasing health insurance (if it's even offered), unpaid sick days, and underpaid side work (when the server is not waiting tables), and you begin to see servers are set up to fail from the get-go. That's why tipping (from a server's perspective) literally means the difference between paying rent or buying groceries some months. 

Restaurant patrons don't always see that perspective though. From their point of view, service doesn't automatically equate to a tip - even if the service may have been adequate. They argue that a tip must be "earned," and often set lofty expectations many servers aren't aware of. Whether a server should have refilled a glass one more time, should have checked back one last time, etc. - it's a subjective achievement-bar-setting exercise that more often than not merely reinforces the already pre-conceived idea that a server is already being paid a wage by their employer and shouldn't be compensated any further. I've even seen arguments that if servers don't like "earning" tips (rather than expecting 15% for adequate service) they shouldn't be working at a restaurant to begin with. Perhaps those people are right - perhaps we shouldn't be setting tipping expectations.

The U.S. is one of only a handful of first world countries where restaurant tipping isn't just customary - it's expected. Failure to leave a tip here isn't just a personal preference - it's a commentary on your server and the meal you just finished. In essence, failing to tip means a restaurant patron was so disgusted by some portion of their dining experience, they essentially wanted to extract slave labor out of the server. During the hour or more the patron sits looking at their menu, ordering, eating, conversing, etc., the server makes less than $10 (on average). And what little bit of money they make is be eaten up by taxes. By refusing to tip, a patron is making a statement that they think their server is so inept/inadequate, he/she doesn't deserve to be paid for serving them.  It may sound harsh - but it's true. Why do we as restaurant patrons (and servers, as middle men and women) allow this?

Corporate America.

Tipping in America
In an age where corporate greed has reached historic levels, lobbying on tipped minimum wage remains high on the list of things to maintain in order to mitigate overhead costs for an entire industry. Why spend an additional $10-11,000 per employee annually to pay full federal minimum wage ($7.25 per hour) when they can leave it up to their customers to subsidize the difference? The tipped minimum wage has remained stagnant for over two decades as the regular federal minimum wage has steadily increased. Who out there can legitimately argue that a person can feasibly live off $2.13 an hour if tips should be optional?

Something has to change in the way we treat our restaurant service industry workers. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the fact that we tell them they can only make $2.13 an hour, but must somehow make up the rest in tips (that many people already consider optional). Something has to change in the way we approach tipping as a nation. We cannot allow subjective patron-based bar-setting to continue where servers may or may not receive a tip for the same level of service. And something has to change in the way we allow corporations to dictate the tone of the national conversation. According to a ROC United report, a mere 2.4% of restaurant workers were represented by labor unions in 2011. Makes you wonder why corporations oppose unionization of restaurant workers, doesn't it?

I don't claim to have all (or any) of the answers; I doubt any one person does. That makes it all the more important that a dialogue be opened to discuss the disparity servers suffer through at the hands of corporate America (as well as egregiously anti-gratuity restaurant patrons). We don't call a real estate agent or a car salesman's sales commission something optional - why should we treat restaurant service any differently? And according to the Dime a Day Miller/Harkin Minimum Wage proposal, we could realistically do something about income inequality while addressing the issue of server/patron relations.

What do you think? How would you begin the national conversation around income inequality in the restaurant service industry? What is the best first step any or every group could make in helping to overcome the current state of affairs? Leave me a comment, then share this article to get the conversation going! You can also head over and sign the Whitehouse Petition to "Abolish the Federal Minimum Tipped Wage, Include Serving Industry in the Standard Wage, and Abolish Taxation of Tips."