The Resilience of Tipping

Tipping is “confusing, arbitrary, discriminatory, and basically anti-democratic.” So says Elizabeth Gunnison Dunn, in a post on Esquire’s food blog that’s been popping up in my facebook feed since it went up on Friday. The article is basically a dual interview with Ethan Stowell and Tom Douglas, two prominent opponents of Seattle’s newly-passed minimum wage increase. The gist is they have no choice but to move to a more European service model, where what’s now a voluntary gratuity is added to the bill and then distributed by the house. Their front of house staff, it’s implied, are going to have to take one for the team.

Dunn suggests, perhaps hyperbolically, that such a move might signal (or cause) a sea change in the way restaurants work in the US.

Dunn is against the institution of tipping, and has many good reasons. Having worked for tips most of my adult life, I’m sympathetic with her arguments. Maybe I’m being sentimental, but I am convinced that tipping will survive Seattle’s wage increase just fine. Because for all its downsides, there are good reasons tipping has evolved its niche in the American economic and cultural landscape, and I think they’ll continue to apply as Seattle’s economy evolves in the coming years.

Let’s start with why we tip. Continue reading “The Resilience of Tipping”

On Tips, Wages, and Tips ARE Wages

It started on facebook.  A friend from work posted about a meeting another friend at work had called, to be held in a spare room at a restaurant downtown.  For weeks we’d been hearing that the proposed minimum wage hike in Seattle was going to ruin our way of life.  Restaurants, in particular, were going to be hard-hit by the wage hike (half the staff makes the state minimum wage of $9.32/hour; bumping them to $15 overnight would eat what little profit our employers were making), leading to closures and cutbacks on hours available for people to work.  We had to do something.

At the meeting was a handout someone had printed up.  The first line said TIPS ARE WAGES.  There was more, a pageful of redux telling us all the things we’d been hearing: the doomsaying, the worst case what-ifs, frightening-est among them: WHAT IF PEOPLE STOP TIPPING?!?.  We nodded our heads; we’d heard this before, and we were worried, too.  It was why we were here.

[disclaimer/disclosure: that was my last week as a tipped employee.  I am currently on hiatus from the hospitality industry.]

The girl who’d called the meeting spoke, as did the man who’d helped set it up.  A march was suggested, contact info taken.  Six or eight of us caught a bug and stayed after, to start putting it together.  Tips ARE Wages would be our slogan, our name, the thing we were arguing, because to people like us, who earn our living from tips, to say tips are wages is like saying ketchup is a condiment.  It jibes with our intuitive understanding of the world.  It’s just common sense.  Tips are how we get paid.  Wages are the monies you get paid for working.  Tips are wages.  Duh.

Things evolved very quickly in the week that followed, a whirlwind of events and epiphanies I’ll no doubt thrill you with some other time, once I’ve wrapped my head around it all a little tighter.  But a week to the day after the first meeting (the day the march would have been held, had we gone forward with it), there was another meeting, at which what I would describe as a friendly parting of ways occurred.  I was among the splitters.

That might seem a strange decision, seeing how much passion and work I’d put into the whole thing.  And I respect those who stayed with it.  Anytime a citizen actively engages in the political process, I count that as a win for democracy and just generally a good thing.  But I couldn’t continue under the auspices of an organization with whose basic premise I’d come to disagree. As intuitively obvious as it is to say tips are wages, if you want to put it in legislation, you need something called a tip credit, which was abolished in Washington State in or around 1989 (said abolition being one of the reasons those of us going to all those meetings and doing all that organizing can make the money we do).


What is a tip credit?  Here’s how it works.  Everybody has to make at least minimum wage.  But some jobs, like bartending, are understood to be tipped professions, meaning that it’s generally understood that some to much of the money earned practicing such a profession is paid by the customers in the form of gratuities.  So for professions like that, the employer pays a much lower hourly rate (the federal tipped worker rate has been frozen at $2.13/hour since 1996; until then it was pegged at half the federal minimum), and the employee reports their tips as taxable income. So what happens if someone doesn’t make enough in tips to meet the federal minimum wage?  The employer is required to pay the difference, but they get a credit for whatever tips the employee earned.  Hence the term ‘tip credit.’ One of the reasons you can make grown-up money in Seattle as a server or bartender is that there is no tip credit here, so you make $9.32/hour, plus your tips.  It means you get a substantial paycheck instead of the spare change left over after income taxes are deducted from your reported tip earnings (I have, in other states, received paychecks for two weeks’ work that totaled $20 or less).  It’s great.  It’s one of the reasons I bartended for as long as I did.


The folks who stayed with Tips are Wages believe that introducing a tip credit (maybe permanent, maybe phased out) will help cushion the blow on small business when their labor prices (and, most likely, the price of most everything else) go up.  If restaurants and bars, at least, can keep their tipped employees at the state minimum wage, then maybe they can weather the storm and the citizens of Seattle won’t lose too many of their favorite hangouts.  It’s not unreasonable, and the certified policy wonk I talked to said that a workable policy for raising the minimum wage could be made to include a tip credit, if need be, and still do what it needs to do. But myself I can’t support it.


It’s possible the sky is really falling — I believe the small business owners I’ve spoken to believe that it is — and that transitioning to a higher minimum wage, even with a phased implementation for small business, will cause such a shock to the economy, at least that part of it concerning the service industry, that places will close and jobs will get scarcer.  The legislation on the table is more ambitious than anything that’s ever been tried before, at least in the States, and if poorly managed or too sudden could cause serious upheaval.  Anybody who says they know how it’s going to pan out is selling something.  And I think it’s really generous that a whole bunch of folks are willing to take a pay cut to keep their employers afloat.


The problem, for me, is two-fold.  First off, the city has no pre-existing apparatus for enforcing compliance.  There’s no tip credit in Washington state, so why would they?  That means building a bureaucracy, writing rules for it, hiring administrators and compliance officers, paying them with monies either from new tax revenue or diverted from existing programs.  All that costs money and effort on the part of city government, with its limited resources and cornucopia of fires to put out and problems to solve, and it seems like a lot of effort to go to just to give business owners a break they could probably catch just as easily some other way.  Making a tip credit temporary would only make it more expensive, since said enforcement apparatus would have to be taken back apart once its mandate expired.


The second problem is more nebulous, but also, I fear, more nefarious as well.  It is, quite simply, that reintroducing a tip credit opens up some very troubling possibilities for abuse.  For one thing, I could see a lot of people getting new job titles (one need only make $30/month in gratuities to qualify as a ‘tipped worker,’ after all), dropping them back down to $9.32, plus tips that employers are responsible for reporting.  Without a strong, established enforcement apparatus, who’s to stop them from fudging the accounting?  I’m not saying everyone will get up to shenanigans, but opening up this kind of loophole creates an incentive to figure out just how much can be snuck through it.  Myself I’m willing to bet that more than I can think of offhand can be.


I’m all for obviating the impact of a wage hike on small business (big business can probably take care of itself, is my thinking).   I just don’t think reintroducing a tip credit is the way to go about it.  Attractive as it might seem (indeed, it seemed quite reasonable to me until very recently), actually implementing it causes as many problems as it solves.  There are better ways to accomplish what it would accomplish that don’t come with that baggage.  Let’s concentrate on those things.


How to Get Good Service in a Busy Bar

Another year is about to come to an end, and New Year’s Eve, that most amateurish of amateur nights, is upon us.  Many of you will have the sense to stay out of the bars, and attend house parties or ring in the new year at home with friends and/or loved ones, far and away the safest, smartest, and, to this cranky old curmudgeon, most enjoyable thing to do on a night when the whole fking world likes to come out and get stupid.  But I understand that I do not represent the mainstream view on the biggest party night of the year.  That for many going out and painting the town red is both desirable and the done thing, that the madding crowds, the turbulent sea of celebrants washing against the bar in wave after wave to negotiate their social lubrication are in fact a source of attraction.  To those folks I’d like to offer some insight into the lives and experience of those harried souls on the other side of that negotiation, that you might use that knowledge to the benefit of all involved (but especially you).

The first thing you have to understand is this: for the staff, this is the worst night of the year, rivaled only by St. Patrick’s Day for biggest shitshow and highest douchebag-to-cool person ratio among the customers.  Even the money isn’t that good, not for what it costs you to earn it, anyway.  So a basic understanding that the bartender and the server and the door guy and the manager are having literally the opposite of your experience is helpful.  I’ve worked bars where the crowd at the bar was ten across and two or three deep from nine-thirty til the lights went up and the clock on the wall said go, and every one of them wanted to be next.  Even for someone who’s done it half a thousand times, it’s stressful as hell, and while you try and be as fair as possible getting to people, you find yourself making decisions about whose turn it is and who gets expedited service and who gets ignored til there’s literally no one else who wants a drink.

Here are some things you can do to be that person who gets helped quicker, who as a result gets to spend more time dancing and carousing and enjoying time with friends old and new instead of waiting in line for a drink because the bartender doesn’t like or remember you. Continue reading “How to Get Good Service in a Busy Bar”

This Guy Last Night

So I’m outside the restaurant last night, taking a break while we run down the clock, hanging out with the kitchen boys and soaking up the night air.  There’s lots of bars around where I work, and weekends we’re overrun with revelry and the shit-show that goes with it, so it took us a minute to notice the guy on the corner, screaming his head off at his woman, who is sitting crumpled in on herself on the trim of the building while her friend stands helplessly by, unable to do anything.  After another minute I decided I had to intervene, and I wondered if things were going to get violent.  The guy was really riled up, so it looked like a real possibility, but my guys had my back and it’s not like I haven’t dealt with ten thousand drunk people in my day.

I walked up to him, and asked how it was going.  He kept ranting, but I got him to start paying attention to me and not the woman, so I figured I was ahead.  I kept asking questions, got him talking, distracted him while the friend got his woman away.  I could’ve called it good right there, but I wanted to buy her some time, so I kept asking questions, kept the guy talking.  What he told me broke my heart a little.

From what I could tell, he wasn’t even specifically mad at the woman.  He was just worn down from working seven days a week to support his wife and mother.  He was literally in tears with frustration at a paycheck-to-paycheck grind in a bad economy, and it’d got to him so bad he couldn’t believe that anyone could understand.  He was so at his wit’s end that he wasn’t ashamed to cry in public, and he kept reverting to fight postures out of a lack of any other options to express himself.  The guy was literally having a breakdown, right there.

There’s only so much you can do for a guy like that, but we did what we could.  We let him speak his truths, and validated the good parts.  We shook hands all around a few times.  Then we walked back in and closed the restaurant the rest of the way, and he went off to who knows where.

It’s a real shame, I think, that the only coping mechanisms most men are taught is to turn pain into anger, and to hold it in until it bursts, usually under the influence of alcohol.  What this guy needs is a safe place to explore his frustrations, but he’ll probably never have it, because the only way he knows how to give himself permission even to engage with the whole tangled mess is to undo his inhibitions with an intoxicant.  I’m not saying it excuses his public berations.  I’m just saying it’s a shame.  I’m just glad I didn’t have to fight him.

A Thing to Remember When Dealing with Nasty People

Got reminded again early on during tonight’s shift of something I’ve been trying to teach myself (and others) for years now, which has, as you might suspect from the title of this post, to do with dealing with particularly nasty people, one of the bigger occupational hazards of working in the Industry.

One of the things you learn early on, and have to learn to deal with the regular occurrence of if you’re going to survive in the Industry, is that some people just can’t seem to help being just extra shitty to you.  Everyone who’s ever worked front of house knows who I’m talking about: the people who treat you like a servant, who are bitchy and dissatisfied from the get-go, who do their absolute best to take a shit in the middle of the happy place you have to cultivate and share in order to do your job.  Any given night you work, these people will comprise 5-50+% of your clientele, and if you’re not careful, they’ll suck the reservoir of joie de vivre you need to do this kind of work dry.

So what do you do when someone tries to take a dump in your psyche? Continue reading “A Thing to Remember When Dealing with Nasty People”