By Sebastian Moronta, SGA Correspondent
“Hey man, I don’t want to pay my employees what their worth, what’s fair, or even what’s legally required for every other industry in America, so screw that, YOU have to!” That’s the restaurant industry.
In a world where there’s a minimum wage for everyone else, where the poverty rate for servers in three times higher than the rest of the workforce, and where sexual harassment and discriminatory behavior is exacerbated by the power structure created by this practice, I ask, why can’t we get rid of tipping as a society?
On principle, it’s pretty ludicrous that this is the one industry where part of the cost of paying an employee a livable wage is pushed as an optional charge to the customer. Imagine walking into Target, picking up basic necessities like toilet paper and blankets, and being societally required to tip the guy who rings you out. That’s not where the silliness ends, the reality is far worse.
Enter the subminimum wage: the lowest wage you can legally give any tipped employee who “regularly and customarily” receives any more than $30 a month in tips. This wage is currently set at $2.13 at the federal level, and while some states have increased that rate, and others even mandated that restaurants pay servers the federal minimum wage before tips, the majority of states in the union have a subminimum wage at or close to the federal level.
That $2.13 rate has been around for a while, nearly 30 years in fact. Remember Herman Cain? Disgraced republican presidential candidate who dropped out of the race due to a sexual harassment scandal? Well, if you needed more proof he’s a dumpster fire, he successfully lobbied congress to freeze the subminimum wage at $2.13 indefinitely as head of the National Restaurant Association before he ran for office.
This results in servers needing the optional tips customers give them to survive, and earn only as much, although often much less, than other jobs. The pay disparity also includes a disparity in benefits including health insurance and paid family leave, which servers are offered alarmingly less than employees in other industries.
Beyond the financial consequences of this legally-sanctioned, socially accepted practice, it also creates a power dynamic that often results in servers being harassed, and having to play along in pursuit of the tips they need to live. All too often are servers asked for their phone number or other personal information, groped, or told to do things outside their purview at customers request, all to “earn” their tip.
When a customer is in control of how much a server earns, it creates an undue power dynamic between them, one that doesn’t exist in other jobs. Some economists think this dynamic is a good thing, and cite the equity theory as the reason why the practice should continue. Put simply, the equity theory is the idea that a worker’s output (wage) should be proportional to the work they put in, and with tipping, theoretically the harder a server works the more he/she will earn as a tip.
But this power dynamic also allows our most basic human flaws to influence whether or not a server earns enough to live. Research by psychologists at Cornell University and Mississippi College shows that on average, black servers are tipped less than white servers, while statistically controlling for the customer’s perceptions of service quality and other variables. They also make the case that because of this, tipping constitutes a discriminatory practice in violation of US discrimination law.
The simple fact is, everyone would be better off if tipping were abolished and servers in the US were paid the way everyone else is, as a guaranteed rate for agreed upon work. Until then, dance monkey dance I guess.