Anonymous has 15-plus years of experience working in both casual and fine-dining establishments. This piece is part of a series of minimum wage op-eds from activists, business owners, low-wage workers, and experts. If you have an editorial you'd like to submit, send it here.
I'm not a political activist, but the debate regarding tipping and a $15 minimum wage has me throwing my two cents in the bucket. Why? Because I'm a server who also happens to be a first-generation immigrant and a divorced single mom who supports two kids and a dog based on my tips. (I am not putting my name on this article because I don't want to drag my family into this fight.) I graduated from the University of Washington with honors, and I've opted to wait tables in part because of the good living and flexibility the job provides.
In a press release, Council Member Kshama Sawant said, "Women are nearly two-thirds of tipped workers, and we must fight for a living wage for all workers, not based on the generosity of others." She has also said that "tips are an extremely sexist and classist way of getting income." It sounds to me like Sawant wouldn't mind if tips were abolished altogether.
Tips are an important part of my income. As someone who makes a great living on tips, I don't want the awesome culture and great jobs created by Seattle's restaurant boom to disappear. I do not believe customers will keep tipping at the percentages they do now if they know my base wage has gone up 60 percent. And if that's how customers respond, the end result will be a drastically lower income for those of us who work in restaurants and bars—gender aside.
I haven't always waited tables. I've had my share of corporate jobs in the past, but the flexible hours I have as a server have allowed me to serve as a PTA treasurer, sell Girl Scout cookies with my oldest, and take both my kids to all their various activities. My work gives me the flexibility to show up at a moment's notice to watch my older child's debate or my younger child's school talent show. When I worked a corporate 9-to-5-ish job (which was really more often a "7 a.m. to 6 p.m.-ish plus work after the kids fell asleep" job), I got to spend time with my kids only before school for breakfast and after school for homework, dinner, and baths. I missed my family, so I changed jobs. I am thankful every day I come to work that I made the decision to wait tables.
When I heard Sawant say that tips are a "sexist and classist" way to make money, I was totally offended. That's an insult to my industry and my customers. Tips are a discretionary part of a free market system that rewards good service. And I have never felt uncomfortable being a woman who works for tips. From a sociological perspective, my work allows me to engage with folks from all walks of life—families, single folks, gay folks, transgender folks, children, people asking for a "senior discount," famous people (everyone from Ozzy to Desmond Tutu), and so on. It's a gift to me when someone sits in my section and spends their meal with me. People go to restaurants and bars not just for basic needs of food and water, but for human kindness and interaction. To make the assumption, as Sawant does, that the majority of people view servers in terms of a "sexist and classist" interaction is to diminish the basic decency of most people.
If whatever policy the city comes up with downplays or does away with tips, my current income will go down. Right now when someone tips, it is illegal for the owner of the restaurant to touch those tips. Raising the minimum wage for servers and bartenders sounds good in theory, but owners will increase prices to cover the increase. Tips will be replaced by higher prices, and the restaurant owners will keep that money—either for operational costs or profit.
My base wage will go up to $15, sure, but I make far more than $15 per hour now. Even if the restaurant owner raises wages for servers to $25 per hour, most servers, bartenders, busers, and even kitchen staff in Seattle will take a large cut to their income. As someone who has worked for several restaurants, I'm acutely aware of the slim profit margins in restaurants, and the price sensitivity of patrons. Do we really want to create a system of dining that can be enjoyed only by those who can afford the increased cost of restaurant food? Why would we want to create a restaurant infrastructure that can be enjoyed by only a small segment of the population? That is classist. Restaurants need a tip credit to (1) close the wage gap demanded by Sawant, (2) keep staffing levels up so restaurants can still provide good service even as costs rise, and (3) maintain affordability for all people regardless of income status.
Private restaurant owners aren't exaggerating when they say they might close if the minimum wage rises too fast and doesn't account for tips. Please listen to them. Doing away with solid middle-class jobs created by restaurants is not the way to fix the issue of low-wage workers in places like McDonald's—a job I had in high school, by the way. And doing away with my great paying, flexible job is something this mom can't imagine facing.