You’ve been there. The bill arrives at the table and discussion of the tip commences. Perhaps a smartphone is pulled out of a purse, ready to start crunching figures. One person suggests 15 percent, another 18, then a third—who’s been in the service industry or has a brother who’s a waiter or dated a guy once—lays it down: A server lives off his or her tips, would make minimum wage without them, and doesn’t actually get to keep everything we give. Taxes must be paid; busers, bartenders, and dishwashers must be given their slice through tip-sharing. A 20 percent gratuity is left, and everyone leaves the restaurant still feeling full and tipsy—but also guilt-free.
For every off-hand kvetch about how tipping these days is almost entirely unrelated to service quality—with one popular Seattle blog recently lecturing that you should tip 20 percent even if the waiter spills food on you and gets the orders wrong—there are stacks of economic studies to show that without tips, most waiters literally can’t survive in Seattle, since most waiters make minimum wage. These pages have already carried plenty of stories backing up that assertion (See “Low Wage Nation,” Feb. 19), and this economic reality is making a $15-an-hour minimum wage a very real possibility in the very near future in Seattle.
But getting back to my hypothetical bill situation (which is closely based on an actual dinner-table conversation I had in Pioneer Square last month): If the minimum wage is increased to $15 an hour—a wage that even our elected socialist agrees is enough to get by on—should tipping culture change with it? If the question seems premature, consider that many restaurant owners are already warning that an increased minimum wage will increase food prices; how a higher wage will affect the cost of dining out is in fact very much in the center of the debate.
No doubt many people have already come to their own conclusion; grumpy dock workers recently told NBC News that they aren’t going to tip at all anymore if the minimum wage goes up to $15 an hour, since that’s almost as much as they make, and certainly they work harder and deserve more than someone running around carrying plates all day. But that logic seemed a little too simplistic for me to go on, so I reached out to a variety of thinkers—etiquette experts and super-smart restaurant workers, mostly—seeking an honest approach to this thorny question: If we’ve been tipping based on the idea that without 20 percent, a waiter would go home with a pauper’s wage, is it OK to consider a lower standard tip if the minimum wage is increased?
In our conversations, we assumed that a tip credit, which allows employers to count tips toward a server’s hourly wage, wouldn’t be instituted—an assumption that could be proven very wrong when all is said and done at City Hall. Washington is one of six states that makes no minimum-wage exception for tipped employees, and that’s not by chance. The idea comes up often in Olympia, and is always met with stiff opposition from labor. But some people I spoke privately with feared that the $15-an-hour proposal is causing cracks in labor’s unified front, suggesting that some organizers are willing to agree to a tip credit if it helps them reach the broader holy grail of liberal economic policy. One server said an increased minimum wage with a tip-credit concession could do more harm than good, reasoning that getting a tip credit implemented statewide will become much easier once liberal Seattle commits to it: “Once you have tip credit in Seattle, you’ll have tip credit across the state.” That would mean a huge net loss for servers outside the Seattle city limits, since they wouldn’t benefit from the $15 wage but would suffer from the tip credit.
But with that enormous caveat out of the way, let’s return to the main question.
Like many other observers of culture and economics, etiquette expert Lizzie Post—great-great-granddaughter of that maven of what’s prim and proper, Emily Post—is hoping from afar that Seattle sets a $15 minimum wage just so she can see what happens. “I’m hesitant to say you shouldn’t tip anymore at all because I’m worried about what might happen to the windows in my car,” she jokes from her office in Vermont. “But it’s an interesting kind of problem.”
Etiquette, she emphasizes, is all about “watching the pendulum of culture” swing, and in the end it will be up to Seattle in part to determine where the tipping pendulum goes if a $15 minimum wage is set.
Yet there’s no doubt that tips help flesh out a server’s take-home pay (basically regardless of service quality) which she says demands a rethinking of tipping culture if the wage goes up significantly—a very cautious rethinking, but a rethinking nonetheless. “We’re giving that soft green light—a nice greenish-yellow hue to it, a very hipster color—to say we would not frown on someone going back to 15 percent or maybe a 10 percent tip,” Post concluded at the end of our conversation.
Not surprisingly, some servers I spoke with tried to red-light that sort of reasoning.
Joe Stormer, a server who helped organize the successful $15-an-hour campaign in Seatac, notes that an increase in the hourly wage does not help servers and other tipped restaurant staff as much as it would, say, a janitor, because the typical server doesn’t work solid eight-hour shifts. That’s not on account of a poor work ethic, it’s just the way restaurants work: At mealtimes they’re slammed and servers make a lot of money from tips, and when the customers leave, so does the staff.
When I told Stormer about Post’s very tentative suggestion that a 10 percent tip may become acceptable again in Seattle if the minimum wage were increased, he did some quick, back-of-the-envelope math. If we assume (and I think we should) that 20 percent is the going rate now, then what was a $100 night in tips would become $50; meanwhile, a five-hour shift at $6 an hour more would net $30 extra a night, leaving the server $20 in the hole.
“To cut tipping in half would really hurt servers and their families,” he says.
Sarah Fox, a soon-to-be published Seattle historian who also waits tables and runs the blog Overeducated Waitress, says that in the long run, if a living wage becomes standard statewide, she could accept tipping going down.
However, she’s reticent to start talking new percentage points, in part because nothing’s been passed yet. During the recession, she says, rumors flew that TV personalities were suggesting that to save money, people could start tipping 10 percent when they eat out—and many diners seized the opportunity. “So here we were as servers, already suffering financially because business was down due to the recession, and here are these customers who clearly expected the same standard of service they got for 20 percent yesterday, at 10 percent today,” she says. “Our attitude was, if you are hurting for cash so much that you aren’t going to tip, don’t have that third glass of really expensive craft beer.”
That said, Fox emphasized that if she takes home less because of an increased minimum wage but lower tips, she won’t bat an eye. Raising the minimum wage is the right thing to do, she believes, and will help most people working at restaurants, from the dishwashers to the busers.
On that note, I asked both Stormer and Fox whether they expected tip-sharing culture to change given that dishwashers and busers would also be making significantly more per hour. Both said no. Stormer noted that the busers at restaurants he’s worked at already make more per hour than the servers; tipping them out is about thanking them for a job well done. (Tip pooling is a whole story unto itself, as even relatively high-paid kitchen staff like chefs now often get a share of tips; Mario Batali was even sued in New York City in 2012 for skimming tips to help subsidize his sommeliers’ wages.)
In the end, Fox says, it’s a conversation and an evolution that can and should happen. She only asks that it come slowly and deliberately, rather than as a knee-jerk reaction to some perception of entitlement on the part of waiters.
“If in 20 years, when a living wage is standard across the state, the standard tip is 15 percent or 10 percent, so shall it be,” she says. “In the long run, I fully expect tipping culture to evolve.”