The trouble with tipping

Staff columnist Alex Oliveira argues the complications of tipping in the 21st century. (Y-J Lee/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Gratuities have been ingrained in American culture for years. Every time you pay for some form of service, it has become customary to include an additional tip that will go directly to the server. In theory, this extra expense can be used to express satisfaction with a server’s job performance; for instance, a customer can leave a large tip for a waiter or waitress who has been especially hospitable. In reality, however, the integration of this subjective gratuity into American culture has created far more issues that could easily be avoided by ending this tradition or replacing it with a set service charge.

Tipping is probably most common in a familiar restaurant situation, when it is customary to tack on an additional 15 to 20 percent of the total bill. Depending on the restaurant, this meal could cost ten dollars or even one hundred dollars for one person, resulting in a wide variety of tips in return for the same service. Unfortunately, it does not require much more skill to serve a burger than a lobster meal to a table, so this percentage range does not accurately represent the extra income that a waiter or waitress deserves.

This point aside, the subjectivity of a gratuity still provides major problems for the server and customer alike. For the server, this makes income relatively unstable because there can be no way of knowing how much each customer will decide to tip, especially because the decision can be due to the customer’s prejudices or even their mood on a given day. In the customer’s case, there is no set charge to base their gratuity on, only social norms. If these norms are between 15 and 20 percent of the bill, many customers find themselves tipping at 20 percent simply because the calculation is much easier, according to a Boston Globe report. On the other hand, some people might be tipping at 15 percent, which was the norm previously, while others might feel the need to tip above 20 percent as this practice becomes more common. For example, many at-the-counter service restaurants now allow customers to pay by credit card on an iPad, which usually provides them with five options: a 15 percent tip, a 20 percent tip, 25 percent tip, custom tip or no tip.

With this new development in the gratuity process, it has become easier to leave a tip for an at-the-counter worker who may not provide the same service as a waiter or waitress. This will likely make tipping in places like fast food restaurants more common in the future because clicking a “no tip” button requires an active decision not to leave a tip instead of avoiding the tip entirely. Still, customers have to consider if an at-the-counter server requires the same tip as a waiter or waitress in a sit-down restaurant because their job is different. Similarly, workers in other services, such as hair stylists and taxi drivers provide completely different services and may need to be compensated differently.

But perhaps the most concerning issue that arises with tipping is the effect it has on minimum wage. As of December 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Fair Labor Standards Act indicates that tipped employees who receive more than $30 per month in tips can be paid below minimum wage by their employers. In fact, their hourly wages can be as low as $2.13 as long as their tips are enough to bring them to the federal minimum wage of $7.25. Not only does this system make servers increasingly dependent on American tipping culture, but it also forms a wage gap between servers and other employees, who might work positions such as cooks or dishwashers.

The most effective way to eliminate these issues associated with the gratuity process would be to move away from subjective tips and pass regulations to ensure that all workers, even those working in services, must be paid at least minimum wage. While this may be difficult to implement with the current tipping culture, a set service charge would be more effective than the flexible tip percentage that is currently in place. This would avoid the ambiguity that is brought about by a subjective tip, so customers would no longer have to decide tipping rates and which services are or are not tippable. But more importantly, it would ensure that workers are paid fairly and steadily for their services.


Alex Oliveira is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.oliveira@uconn.edu.