Making Gratuities Gratuitous

Depending on who you ask, tipping as practiced in the contemporary United States is either a crassly exploitative transfer of economic risk from a business to its employees which leaves them vulnerable to wage theft, sexual harassment, and economic uncertainty or a great way to earn a good living working part time for cash in hand — much of which is untaxed — leaving time to pursue any number of artistic or academic endeavors while sleeping in every day and getting paid for being likable.

As someone who spent the bulk of his adult life working front of house in restaurants and bars, I think I can say pretty definitively that both of those things are true.

Tipping is exploitative in that it is essentially a wage subsidy, paid by the customer, which lowers the establishment’s labor cost. Of course, almost every capitalist endeavor tries to do this, but it is especially important in the hospitality industry, which tends to require lots of labor and is generally very competitive. What it essentially boils down to is it allows the customer to decide, within parameters, how much they will pay for the establishment’s products and services. If the customer is displeased, or just cheap, they can pay the bill as presented, and the tipped employee is out of luck. The house gets its money either way. Hence the transfer of economic risk. This also creates a situation in which the tipped employee is at the mercy of the customer with regard to the tipped employee’s wages, which means putting up with all manner of ill treatment, whether that’s being sexually harassed (something I can say without hesitation is extremely widespread) or just taking shit from somebody who’s having a bad day, or a bad life, or needs to assert dominance in order to make up for their personal shortcomings.

Tipping is awesome because you make (often un- or undertaxed) cash money for showing people a good time, and if you’re in the right place, the money can be comparable to the earnings of respected professions without having to go to school for years or work nine to five sitting in an office hating life like all the poor saps who make up the bulk of your clientele. And while it’s not always easy to find a gig in the right place, it’s usually easy to find a gig, and even though a percentage of the people you deal with will be awful, a percentage of them will be awesome, and once you learn how to deal with people you can learn to deflect the awful and cultivate the awesome, which can be a very useful life skill, on and off the clock.

I’ve mostly retired from the hospitality game. But I do take on seasonal work bartending weddings during the summertime, and it’s got me thinking about the whole thing in a much different light.

I’m not going to be crass, and say what I bill. Suffice to say, I bill professional rates for my time, because I’m on the hook for income taxes and social security contributions — which yes, I do claim, and do pay, because taxes are the price we pay to live in a civilized society, and I prefer my society to be civilized — but also because, frankly, I’m worth it. In the end my hourly rate works out to be not far from what I made working in a decently busy bar.

But I still put out a tip jar, and people still tip me.

Now of course part of this is just cultural inertia. Everybody knows you’re supposed to tip the bartender (whether they like, agree with, or do it is a function of the individual). But the rate that I bill changes the whole dynamic, both for myself and for my customers. Since I already know I’m being paid what I’m worth, I’m released from caring about the tip jar and free to do my work well because I’m good at it and I’m being adequately compensated for the skills and work ethic I’ve developed over the course of my former career. And my customers are free to tip me, or not, purely as a function of their own free choice, since the onus of paying my wages in lieu of the house is lifted. If they don’t have cash, or don’t feel like tipping, it doesn’t matter. I still happily serve them. If they do, then that’s great. I feel appreciated, and I go home with more money.

But even more than that, people have a better time.

Now sure, it’s a wedding, so people are already in a good mood, for the most part. But I can say with absolute certainty that I’m able to make people happier, and show them a better time, having removed the onus of obligatory gratuities from the calculus.

And that’s what front-of-house sells. We show you a good time. Yes, it has a bit to do with the food and drink we bring you, but what we’re really there to give you, our real contribution to society, is we treat you like you are important, respected, and liked. That’s what you pay us for (and if you don’t think that’s true, go get waited on in a country that doesn’t do tips like the US does; it’s a real eye opener). And despite what some folks (none of whom have ever done the job) say, that’s important. It’s a genuine contribution, both on the individual level and as a societal good.

I may seem to be bragging, but that’s not my intent. I’ve been thinking a lot about this ever since Seattle’s minimum wage debate last year, the after-shocks of which are still resonating. Some places are starting to do away with gratuities, and there was and remains a lot of resistance among the elite echelons of front of house staff to the wage hike, because they’ve got a good thing going and don’t want it messed with. There are even, so we’re told, people who’ve used the rise in wages to stop tipping (though how many of these people there actually are remains nebulous). I suppose in the end my intentions are aspirational, because I think the deal I’ve got going ought to be the deal everyone gets. I think people who work in service ought to be able to make professional wages, the kind that can pay a mortgage and support a family, and I think that if their customers are so moved, they can and should be able to add a little extra as a way of saying thanks for the the care taken of them and the good time they were shown.

I think gratuities ought to be just that, gratuitous.

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