Poor tippers aren’t the problem, it’s our 3rd world economy

PoorTippersArticleAre the poor tippers really the problem for food service employees?  A Facebook friend posted this article on his newsfeed today and while I empathize, have worked in food service, and wondered about this lady’s “skills” as a server, I think this very common sentiment is completely misplaced.  Instead of complaining about the poor tippers, we should complain that any employee is paid below the minimum wage (and yes, the minimum wage is a joke, but that’s an entirely different can of worms).

A “tip”, by definition is, “something given voluntarily or beyond obligation usually for some service”.  Tipping in the US — especially in the food service industry — is clearly not really voluntary, we are obligated to leave a tip for the employee because I think most of us understand they’re not properly paid.  By modern social obligation in the US, the customer’s cost of dinner is really 20% higher than the price posted on the menu because we have to pay the wages for the food/ drink service employees.  But what does the tip mean — is it just a ‘free market’ evaluation of the server’s performance? Not really — it’s also an evaluation of the quality of the food, the ambiance, the mood of the diner(s), etc.  Yet, the food industry has managed to keep this little loophole in labor law to legally define people in food service or ANY industry receiving more than $30 per month of their wages in tips as having a minimum wage at or below $3 per hour (for good background information on the history of this, check out Wiser Waitress).

The result is that the food industry have consistently the lowest wages and the highest levels of job insecurity in the US, yet they are the fastest growing sector in the US with about 70% of new low wage jobs in food service.  The irony is that the food industry demonstrates a genuinely third world approach to employment and work because, as last year’s (2012) National Labor Employment Project reports, the industry is marked by many of the large corporations in the industry posting record profits while the workers see the purchasing power of their wages diminishing.  Certainly, the report goes beyond just servers; however, the theme in the industry is clear — workers quality of life doesn’t really matter.

While servers are in the most volatile position in this third world economy that Americans are building where the rich and the “corporate people” are boasting record profits while average people are getting poorer with each passing year as our wages in the last decade have stagnated at a level higher than during the Great Depression.  Oh, and let’s not forget that the overwhelming majority of food service employees in the US get no paid sick days and the irony is that the Center for Disease Control estimates that because people go to work sick an average of 5 million people get the flu alone each year because of workplace policies regarding sick days.  Great — we support a third world economy AND it’s likely to get us sick because those who can least afford not getting paid are serving us our poncy meals out.

Yet, why do Americans continue to ask the wrong questions or make the wrong critiques?  Well, in this case we can relate to this young woman — either because we ask if she’s a crap server/ works in a crap restaurant or because we’ve been there and empathize greatly (especially in a college town).  When we focus the conversation on the bad tippers, we’re conceding that the corporate interests supporting paying people under $3 an hour are OK. I’m not saying “don’t tip” in the US for obvious reasons; however, instead of being embarrassed at not tipping enough, we should be angry that a large segment of our workers are abused workers.  I get her frustration because there have been many a shitty business night (e.g., Mondays or Tuesdays) where I went to work and was the only server on duty and made like $20 because we only had two tables the whole night.  Why should the employer be allowed to schedule me to spend 5 hours of my time for functionally no wage? They don’t do that with the back of the house. The owner certainly takes their money — but they do it on the backs of the serving and bartending staff.

My last food service job was working at a cute little Tapas restaurant where I made pretty good tips (I made more in tips for fewer hours than working as an adjunct college instructor while finishing my dissertation… lovely) and there was a great German couple who came in one night.  They were friendly, chatty, enjoyed the food and drink, thanked me for my great service, and left me a 10% tip.  My first reaction?  Honestly — ‘What the fuck?’ and then I remembered — servers are actually paid in Europe and a 10% tip is an EXCELLENT tip.  So, what could I do — it wasn’t their fault Americans don’t believe employees are worth paying a wage.  If the cost of food and drink needs to be 20% higher in order to pay at least a decent wage to our food service employees, that’s what we should support so that a tip is a voluntary and not a social obligation.  Instead of supporting a third world economy, Americans need to hold all businesses to account for their labor practices.

And no — it’s not taking money away from the ‘job creators’ — it’s ensuring we stop our slide to becoming the richest third world country in the world… GO USA!

3 thoughts on “Poor tippers aren’t the problem, it’s our 3rd world economy

  1. Thank you so much for this thoughtful post on servers. When I was a college student my mother would complain to me about my “exorbitant” tips on the few occasions that I did go out to eat. See, I grew up in Europe and she couldn’t understand that servers were not actually paid a living wage here. Once I made it clear to her, she only recommended that I stop going out for dinner as often, so that I could actually afford the 20-25% tip that I gave my “regular” waiters.

    Now that I graduated into a recession, I’m the one earning below subsistence level income as a freelancer, and often times the only work I can get pays on average $1-$2.5 an hour because it’s project oriented and it doesn’t matter to the “employers” that I need to spend 4x and 5x as much time getting their projects done on schedule than I am being paid for.

    Needless to say, I live off foodstamps and don’t go out to eat more than 2 or 3 times a year now. So much for supporting other low-income earners!


    • Thanks for sharing your experience.

      The incredible insanity of food service aside — my husband’s Scottish and we’ve spent much of the last 6 years we’ve been together watching the news (we’re both current events and politics fiends) and over the years we both came to the conclusion that the US just wasn’t the kind of place we wanted to live. A lot of it has to do with the grim realities of living there as a ‘regular’ working person. The mythology of America is that if you work hard, you can succeed and really the evidence shows that is no longer the case.

      So, last year when the opportunity came up for us to come to Europe we took it and even though we’re on one income, our quality of life and opportunities have gone up substantially. Heck, even the food we eat (ok, horse meat jokes aside) is better (i.e., less genetically modified and chemistry experiment components) and we just feel better being here.

      The US doesn’t support low-income earners, our assistance programs are almost set up to dissuade people from taking initiative and risks, and health care is a joke. Many Americans seem to believe they can be Mitt Romney or Donald Trump and that mistaken belief combined with sloth in understanding the world around them is damaging the US in such fundamental ways that I don’t know how or when things will fundamentally change there.


      • Fundamentally, people have to be doing much worse than they already are before anything will change here, despite the blatantly poor education that fuels the bigotry-run-rampant in this country. I am an (romantic) idealist, who hopes that people will wake up to the causes of disparity.

        One *can* only hope that the working-poor/underemployed/unemployed will wake up to realize the wool has been pulled over our eyes, once the austerity measures are pushed through, and the “drip system” of welfare is removed from our veins… . Once there is nowhere else to go for help, people will most certainly take to the streets to demand that our “millionaire” politicians hear our cries!


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