I Want Everybody to Make More, Not Waiters and Bartenders to Make Less
By Dan Savage
Waiting tables has always meant good money, if not great money, and a flexible schedule. The ability to swap shifts with other waiters meant being able to get time off for play rehearsals or final exams or Stranger editorial meetings back in the day.
Tips were what made the job a good one. Tips made it lucrative. Tips put me through school and through living in London for a year and through the first two years of The Stranger, back when Stranger writers got paid in coupons for pizza. And you could make a decent living waiting tables, so if you got "stuck" being a waiter all your life, that wasn't so bad. That's why I get nervous—nervous on behalf of the waiters still out there upselling, nervous for people who are trying to get their careers in the arts off the ground—when restaurants start talking about doing away with tipping, as some Seattle restaurants are now doing.
Sure, the fact that waiters make more than (most) cooks and (all) dishwashers is unfair. But instead of talking about raising the wages of cooks and dishwashers—maybe we could up the minimum wage to, say, 15 bucks an hour? Maybe we could try that?—the new push from restaurants seems to be to pay waiters less. Eliminate tipping. Add a 15 to 22 percent service charge or price increase and basically split up that dough among everyone in the place—waiters, managers, hosts, bussers, dishwashers, prep cooks, line cooks. Take a place with some people making decent money and some people making far-from-decent money and turn it into a place where no one makes decent money.
I'm sometimes asked—a radio-show host asked me just the other day—what I would be doing if I weren't doing my current job. What's the fallback/backup/safety gig for an advice columnist, anyway?
"I would still be waiting tables," I replied, thinking back on my time at Courier Cafe, Davis Street Fish Market, Cafe du Parc, Jams of London, Orso, Cafe Septieme, and six or seven other places whose names I can't remember. I put myself through college working for tips at a fancy French restaurant in Chicago during the summer and a burgers-and-shakes place in Urbana, Illinois, during the school year. I paid for a year in London—not cheap—on the tips I made working at two "American-style" restaurants over there. And during my first years at The Stranger, I lived on the tips I made serving bowls of coffee and buttermilk biscuits to artists and other first-wave gentrifiers in Belltown.
"And I'd be fine with going back to waiting tables," I added. "I liked being a waiter. It's a pretty good gig." I believe tipping is a good deal for the customer, too (the waiter works for you, not the house).
But if we do away with tipping, a pretty good gig will be destroyed. There will still be one service-economy gig out there that comes with flexible hours and pays good money. But not everyone is cut out for sex work.
Some Restaurants in the Bay Area Are Eliminating Tipping, Too
By Kathleen Richards
Oakland's farm-to-table restaurant Homestead made national headlines earlier this year when they decided to raise prices by 20 percent and eliminate tips. Fred Sassen, who co-owns Homestead with his wife, Elizabeth, told me a few days ago, "I think that the worst fears that I had were all in my head."
After Oakland's minimum wage rose from $9 to $12.25 on March 2, the Sassens got rid of tips entirely and gave their back-of-house workers a raise, from $13 to $15 an hour to $16 to $18. Front-of-house staff also saw their hourly wages increase, from $9 to "nearly double the [new] minimum wage," although their overall earnings (without tips) decreased. Homestead was already unique in that it had been pooling tips—meaning they were spread among front-of-house and back-of-house workers (although not evenly)—in an effort to address the wage disparity between the two sets of employees.
Sassen said he was worried the changes would piss off customers and cause him to lose staff. Instead, servers are choosing to work more hours in order to compensate for the lack of tips. Another outcome, he added, is that servers are "providing a better service to the guest." With tips at most traditional restaurants, front-of-house workers make the highest income among all the restaurant's employees, including managers, Sassen pointed out, meaning there's no incentive for them to climb the ranks.
"It's a dinosaur way of thinking," he said. "It provides no growth projections for a server. Because anything above a server—to be a sommelier or general manager—you're going to take a pay cut and have more hours... So now managers make more than their staff does. If you're a server who excels at what you do, then I can promote you to a manager and I can give you a raise and give you a growth projection in this industry."
The Sassens are actually outliers in their decision to eliminate tips, according to Luke Tsai, food critic at the Oakland-based alt-weekly the East Bay Express (which is my former employer). "A lot more restaurants are doing some modified version of it," he said. "A couple other restaurants have gone to a service charge kind of model... The other model is just restructuring how they do service, so more of the people have some service component to their job, like some of the cooks might bring food out to the table, so that way, if they do keep tipping, everyone can have more of a cut for tips."
That latter option was adopted by Oakland's the Half Orange (which is owned by Jay Porter, who previously ran a tipless restaurant in San Diego). In Berkeley, the izakaya-style restaurant Ippuku eliminated tips but also increased menu prices to include sales tax and tacked on a $3 per person table charge. San Francisco's Aster also doesn't accept tips but simply raised prices. Oakland's Toast opted for a 15 percent service charge while keeping tips optional. Camino and Duende, also in Oakland and also now tipless, implemented a 20 percent service charge.
Homestead's Fred Sassen said he decided against a service charge because of the blowback many San Francisco restaurants received in 2007 when they tacked on fees in response to the city's mandated health care for workers. An informal survey of readers by the San Francisco Chronicle last year found that two-thirds of them decrease the amount they tip to account for surcharges. (There have also been questions about whether restaurant owners actually pocketed the fees.)
Chris Pastena, who owns the Oakland restaurants Chop Bar, Lungomare, and soon-to-open Calavera, said he decided to keep tips while raising prices and giving both front-of-house and back-of-house workers "large raises." He had considered adding a back-of-house tip line to bills in order to level the playing field with front-of-house staff, but ultimately decided against it due to legal uncertainty.
What's also uncertain is just how his restaurants will fare with the increased labor costs. "At Chop Bar, our net profits were down about 2 percent, which, when your net profits are measured with success at 10 percent, is a lot," Pastena wrote in an e-mail. "At Lungomare, the net profits were down about 3 to 4 percent. We are looking into how we can balance this a little better. We do not want to raise prices any more, but we might need to."
Sassen said the majority of his customers have responded positively to the changes at his restaurant, but some are being more financially conservative—for example, sharing entrées. Pastena said he's seen a slowdown in the number of customers, but people individually are spending slightly more.
"Everyone is still kind of figuring out their model," said the Express's Luke Tsai. "It's too early to say what the long-term fallout is going to be. What hasn't happened is restaurants closing left and right."
Regardless, everyone agrees that the trend of eliminating tips and addressing income disparity among food-service workers will continue to reshape the industry. Sassen said many other business owners, including representatives from the Bay Area–based mega coffee chain Peet's Coffee & Tea, have contacted him regarding his compensation model. But not for the reasons you might think. "The issue isn't paying the lowest-paid worker," said Sassen. "It's how you differentiate the middle-class workers"—meaning the longtime employees who now make the same minimum wage as the new person who walks in off the street.
Overall, however, Sassen believes the changes have been positive for everyone—even the previously tipped servers who are making less. Whereas their income once fluctuated depending on how busy a restaurant was, now it's more stable. "What's happening in my model is the business takes 100 percent of the risk," Sassen said. "There is the potential for the business to make money, but also to lose more money."
Keep in Mind That Tipped Workers (Including Baristas and Taxi Drivers) Are Only 10 Percent of Low-Wage Workers in Seattle—Think About the Bigger Picture Here
By Ansel Herz
Can we stop talking about waiters for just a second? Sure, they're the most public-facing of low-wage workers, but they are in the minority of people affected by the new minimum-wage law.
According to a 2014 Puget Sound Sage analysis of census data, there are about 10,000 tipped workers in Seattle. That's just 10 percent of the 100,000 workers in Seattle who take home less than $15 per hour. The other 90 percent, according to a separate UW study, are food prep, retail sales, office, transportation, health care, and hotel workers who make a flat hourly wage. Let's have this debate over tipping without losing sight of the larger picture: Most people impacted by the minimum-wage raise are workers at fast-food restaurants and back-of-house kitchens, clerks at places like Target, receptionists, and drivers, among others. They're all getting a long overdue raise.
Of the small minority of workers who do receive tips, Puget Sound Sage found that they are disproportionately women. Sixty-one percent of them are waiters, making an average income of just $22,620 (this, however, is an underestimate that counts only tips paid with credit cards, not cash). Workers in tipped industries suffer from unusually high rates of wage theft, according to federal studies. Just remember that in Seattle, they're only a small slice of the pie. The vast majority of low-wage workers aren't tipped and are limited to flat hourly earnings. Those wages are finally shooting upward to $15 per hour over the next two to six years, depending on the size of the company the person works for.
Why Don't Grocery Store Workers Get Tips? Seriously, They Put Up with A LOT
By Katie Allison
Learning which services are customary to tip for is one of the more stressful parts of becoming an adult. It's a weird, unwritten, often unspoken set of rules that affects a sizeable percentage of everyday transactions. And at least from what I can tell, the distinction between tipped and non-tipped services is utterly, bafflingly arbitrary.
You tip your hairstylist, but not your auto mechanic; your taxi driver, but not your bus driver; your server, but not your grocery cashier. As someone with a few years' experience working in grocery stores (plus one restaurant job), I have especially wondered about grocery stores. Like waiting tables, working in a grocery store involves long hours on your feet, careful handling of food, and varying degrees of performed subservience to the customer. Neither requires an advanced degree or any significant artistic talent. So why is serving unquestionably a tipped position while cashier-ing is not?
I've heard it argued that tips are designed to motivate extra-friendly, efficient service... but "extra-friendly" now seems to be the default required everywhere. If you're charming and great with customers, why should that earn you extra money at one customer-service job and not another? At both of the grocery stores I worked at (a national chain and a small local store), accepting tips was not just discouraged but forbidden. And yet, we were required to treat each customer like royalty. So what's the fundamental difference? What makes grocery work inherently less deserving of tips?
At the neighborhood store where I used to work, I once had a middle-aged man hold up the line, drawing out his transaction as he spewed sexual innuendo in my direction. I was 17 at the time. When I handed him his change, he seized my hand hard and said: "I gave you my money—that means you're mine now, right? Gotta come home with me!"
After he let go, he hung around my check stand, making similarly gross comments, until I fled to the back for my break. The next day, I was called into the office and told that he had complained about me, saying I was "cold and rude," and that the managers had watched the security footage and agreed with him. I needed to "really make an effort," because "our service is what keeps people coming back." Is the bar for what you're expected to put up with truly that much higher in the restaurant industry?
To be clear, as things stand, I absolutely don't believe that eliminating tipping in restaurants (and driving down servers' pay) is any kind of solution, and I certainly don't blame the workers on either side of the divide. But as the tipping issue begins to dominate the minimum-wage conversation, it's worth reminding ourselves how bizarre and arbitrary the whole system is. There must be a better way to do things.
Tipping Is an Inherently Flawed System—but It's Too Early to Get Rid of Tips
By Heidi Groover
I don't know what it's like to live off tips. I've worked in food service with a tip jar, but I've never been a server whose livelihood is truly at the mercy of how good I am at pleasing strangers. (Good thing, because I'm a disaster at small talk.) That lack of firsthand experience makes me so anxious every time I fill out a tip line on a receipt that I usually end up tipping 20 percent even when I had a terrible experience. The other day, I tipped on self-serve drip coffee.
And there's a whole other side of the economic insecurity of tipped jobs that, because of my own experience (and privilege), I hadn't ever really had to consider. In a New York Times op-ed titled "Can You Be a Waitress and a Feminist?" published last week, a Las Vegas cocktail waitress described this dynamic: "When I find a remark disgusting, or have my hands, shoulders, and hips held for uncomfortably long periods of time by men I don't know, I have to suppress my natural reaction. I try to ignore it, or feign amusement, all for the sake of the guest's experience, my job security, and the chance of a good tip. It's easy to have ideals, but reconciling them with the need to pay rent is a more difficult task in a town with few professional opportunities." The author describes men asking her, "If I take you home, will you be as good to me?" and offering $1,000 for her phone number. Gross.
Tipping, for all the good it does making low-wage jobs livable for workers, has a dark side. Tips are not a reliable source of income because they vary based on customers' moods and perceptions. That can make the people who depend on tips more likely to endure harassment in hopes of pleasing customers. And since women are overrepresented among tipped jobs, that effect falls disproportionately on women, according to the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a worker advocacy organization that opposes tip credits. According to a 2014 ROC United survey of 688 current and former restaurant workers, 50 percent of women "reported experiencing 'scary' or 'unwanted' sexual behavior." This is especially dramatic in states and cities with a tip credit. Take, for example, my home state of Idaho, where employers can pay tipped workers $3.35 an hour. Or, worse, states like Alabama and Georgia that comply with the federal minimum wage, where tipped employees make just $2.13 an hour in wages.
That's why groups like ROC United and 15 Now, which advocated for Seattle's minimum-wage increase, push back against tip credits, which allow employers to pay tipped workers a lower base wage. Tips are not the same as wages. They are not dependable. Your wages can't be lowered if you tell an overfriendly customer to stop grabbing your ass. People who argue against tip credits think your boss (or lawmakers) shouldn't be able to push you into accepting that kind of behavior by making you more dependent on tips.
"Even entertaining the idea of a tip credit is like telling women they don't matter," city council member Kshama Sawant told The Stranger during last year's debate over how to raise the minimum wage in Seattle. Business interests were fighting for a tip credit; the 15 Now movement (including Sawant) was pushing back hard. Business interests eventually won.
Saru Jayaraman, ROC United's cofounder and the director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley, told me the sexist dynamic has lingering effects in an industry where many young women have their first jobs. When they're older, some women never report sexual harassment on the job because, they tell her, "it was so much worse" when they were younger. "This is the way we are teaching young women what is acceptable and tolerable in the workplace," she says.
On the other hand, ROC United's research doesn't suggest that all women working in tipped jobs are trapped in exploitation. Of course not. Plenty of women enjoy their tipped jobs. And, of course, some men in tipped jobs face sexual harassment, too.
So, if we care about improved conditions for low-wage workers, what are we supposed to do? If we want higher wages, we should keep tips, but if we want a less disgusting and sexist system, shouldn't we get rid of them?
Jayaraman said there's no way to phase out tips now without destroying the livelihoods of some restaurant workers. That won't be possible until wages are high enough to live off without tips, and that may not happen for a very long time.
When I asked Sawant and 15 Now organizer Jess Spear about this recently, they had a similar take, arguing that tips can't be phased out until workers make more and only if workers themselves organize in favor of moving away from tips.
"Maybe one day in a utopian world, where workers are paid closer to $25 or $30 an hour" like other so-called "skilled" jobs pay, we can do without tipping, said Jayaraman. "For now, tips are absolutely necessary to get workers closer to a skilled, professional wage."