America’s damaging tipping culture

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Staff writer Madeline Miller shares her thoughts on the United States’ “tipping culture” and the importance of paying servers a livable wage.
Madeline Miller

Even though the American minimum wage is not enough to cover rent in some places, there are still workers being paid below it. Restaurants are allowed to pay servers below minimum wage as long as tips make up for the difference. It’s a practice that is often jarring for tourists from other countries and for a good reason. The tipping culture in American is damaging for both servers and customers.

By paying servers less than minimum wage against tips, restaurants squeeze more money out of customers than they are already making on the food. Restaurants are asking customers to subsidize their labor costs and, for the most part, they are succeeding because they have built it into a social mandate.

When customers do not tip, they essentially reach into the pockets of their server. Despite often making only $2 to $3 an hour, servers are taxed under the assumption that they’ll be making much more, so tips make or break the server’s income. That is not fair for either party.

If a customer decides not to tip to stop participating in the social contract carefully put in place by restaurants, they do not just have to live with hurting someone who is more than likely just trying to make ends meet, they also deal with looking bad to their fellow diners, who are often people of social importance to the customer.

Servers, meanwhile, are forced to rely on their customers to pay their bills. This opens them up to be abused by bad customers without effective recourse. They pay rent on the whims of the customers they serve, and not many customers truly understand that—or care, for that matter. A customer might decide not to tip based on any slight, real or perceived, and that requires servers to be constantly vigilant.

The American tipping culture should be eliminated. It allows restaurants to run on low overhead by transferring the risk to workers. They make money on the food you eat and the service their wait staff provide without actually paying said wait staff a decent living wage. They allow strangers to subjectively grade their employees based on any arbitrary standards that strangers decide to set, and they set up the employees’ livelihoods as collateral.

The worst part is that paying their servers a decent living wage would not be at all cost prohibitive like they want people to believe. No one should be allowed to pay their workers below minimum wage, whether they expect tips to make up for it or not. It is an exploitative and greedy practice that is only allowed because it has become ingrained in our culture.

But please tip your server until such time as they are paid enough to make rent. Do not take out your frustration with the restaurant industry on the college kid who brings you your food. They are providing a service to you so you can have a nice evening out. On another day, it could be you carrying plates. What would you want?