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February 16, 2017

Here's a Tip

Workers in the service industry deserve the federal minimum wage.

Over the past summer, I spent a few weeks in London. After spending an hour in a black cab from Heathrow to Canary Wharf, I was surprised that my cab driver refused to take any tips. It was such a pleasant contrast to New York’s rude taxi drivers, who drive like there’s no tomorrow and give you the evil eye if they deem your tip to be too small. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA) mandates that “an employer of a tipped employee is only required to pay $2.13 an hour in direct wages if that amount plus the tips received equals at least the Federal minimum wage.” There is no reason why the customer should be forced to pay for an employee’s wage. In every other industry, it’s the employer’s sole responsibility to cover its employees’ wages, so why is the service industry exempt from this?  

This arbitrary law makes life very difficult for many waiters. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 18 percent of tipped workers in states where restaurants just pay the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 an hour are in poverty compared to 7 percent of non-tipped workers who receive at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25. However, in states where restaurants must pay more than the federal tipped minimum wage, 14.4 percent of tipped workers fall below the poverty line versus 6 percent of non-tipped workers. Additionally, because tips comprise the majority of a waiter’s salary, the pay is entirely dependent on the flow of business. When few people come in to eat and menu prices are low, pay can suffer dramatically.

In other words, waiters can be unfairly punished for their employer’s lack of business acumen. No matter how good a waiter is, he won’t be able to bring in more customers because of his serving skills. People come to restaurants for the food, price, and reputation—factors which are outside of waiters’ control. This is a double standard in the industry; the cashiers in the same restaurant make the same amount per hour regardless of the number of customers. In non-sit-down establishments (such as fast food restaurants), employees are also paid a constant rate. There is no good reason why waiters should be punished for the owner’s lack of ability to generate revenue, as that is not their role. 

For these reasons, the federal tipped minimum wage should be abolished. It unfairly favors restaurant owners by making customers pay for waiters’ wages, a policy that pushes many waiters into poverty. It is only fair that people in tipped industries are given the same legal treatment as those in other industries.

On a cultural level, I have never understood why customers give tips to people for doing their jobs. People don’t Venmo their stockbrokers a $5 tip for buying 20,000 shares of Apple’s stock; nor do they tip cashiers, janitors, or even the construction workers who built the roof that is over their heads. Instead, tips are primarily given to people in the service industry. The work between service and non-service workers is different, but the similarity is that they are both paid for doing their jobs. Federal law aside, there really isn’t anything that makes service workers worthy of receiving the extra cash. 

We are socialized to believe that the workers we interact with deserve tips, even if they don’t receive a tipped wage. Over the winter holidays, I noticed that only the doormen and concierge in my building, who saw residents on a daily basis, received Christmas tips from residents. The porters, handymen, and janitors, who largely remained out of sight, were left empty-pocketed. Spending hours in a hot boiler room fixing broken water pipes and lugging 30-pound vacuums across long hallways is much more physically taxing than opening the door for someone in an air-conditioned room, yet the person who has the easiest job gets the tips. Similarly, the cooks in restaurants, who toil away at long shifts in a hot and hectic kitchen, hardly even get thanked for their work, let alone receive tips. If tips are supposedly given to express gratitude, shouldn’t the people who work behind the scenes get some too? I don’t mean to single out waiters and doormen, but it seems arbitrary that they only receive tips because they interact more with customers. 

Furthermore, the pervasiveness of tipping in American culture has eroded much of its original intent as a sign of gratitude. People who don’t tip waiters generally get the evil eye, hear whispers behind their backs, and occasionally are confronted by an angry waiter. They are guilt tripped for supposedly being cheap, even though tips are technically optional in most establishments. Tipping in America is not a small token of appreciation; rather it is a necessity and the only way waiters can make a living wage. 

The U.S. is infamous for being one of the few countries where tipping is mandatory. In other countries, tipping is seen as condescending toward workers in the service industry, and the practice either doesn’t exist or is replaced by a fixed service charge. There are many unique things about this country that should be kept, but our egregious tipping culture is not one of them. 

Brian Dong is a first-year in the College majoring in political science.

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