Letter to the editor: Flawed tipping system ensures poor service, low wages

ULM Hawkeye

I was glad that Allison Wiseman wrote recently with advice to correct poor tipping etiquette among ULM students, which she attributes to ignorance and bad manners. She made a lot of good points, like how people who can’t do basic math can always use calculators, and that you can “look it up” if you don’t believe that Louisiana abides by federally mandated subminimum wage laws.  Her thought-provoking letter was so helpful that it put me in an advice-giving mood myself.

Let me begin by saying I have never worked as a server in any capacity precisely because I object to the tipping system.  I don’t know what it is like to leave with empty pockets after working for hours to please people who – let’s face it – can be really rude for no good reason.

However, I do work in customer service at a call center, where generally, you only interact with people after they have a problem, have become angry, and are ready to yell at someone over the phone. So I do know how difficult it can be to keep your cool and continue to treat impossible-to-please people with courtesy as they complain angrily at you. People who do those sorts of jobs deserve much more than $2.13 an hour, I think we can agree. But the system of tipping has always struck me as exploitative and inefficient for a number of reasons.

First, even properly tipped servers may receive inadequate compensation, as the tip is ultimately derived from the price of the meal. You may work just as hard to serve a customer who orders a $10 burger and fries as one with a $30 meal, so why should you be tipped less for the cheaper meal after providing equivalent service?

Second, it is often argued that tipping is “to insure proper service,” and that poor service should be reflected in the tip. The reason this doesn’t work is because it is easier for a server to believe that their table doesn’t tip well than to believe they aren’t doing a good job. So when a low tip is received, the immediate reaction is to label the customer a bad tipper.

When that customer returns, they have gained a reputation as a bad tipper, even though the low tip was originally meant as a reflection of service. So poor service leads to a poor tip, which in turn leads to more poor service, and on it goes. So if anything, tipping is “to insure poor service,” not the other way around.

Wiseman demonstrates this rationale perfectly.  In her letter, she says that a $2 tip for a $22 meal is unacceptable, especially since she gives us 110% service 110% of the time. She doesn’t even allow for the possibility that bad tips mean bad service; in fact, she never mentions it once in her entire letter.

Third, the tipping system burdens the customer with the uncomfortable task of evaluating and compensating employee performance directly, a task that should be set aside for management. It has the potential to make the whole meal awkward, and I have to wonder how many people silently avoid eating out all-together because of it.

Lastly, some say that it is nearly impossible to turn a profit by paying servers decent wages, and that food prices would go up if they were to do so. This is unconvincing, not only because consumers pay more for their meal in the form of tips anyway, but because restaurants can and do operate in a way that properly compensates their employees.

Try to leave a tip at the Black Star Co-op, a microbrewery in Austin, Texas; you will receive a lecture about how they pay a living wage and do not accept tips. The Black Star starts employees out at $13.50 an hour plus benefits—three times the monthly rent of a one bedroom apartment in Austin. The fair pay and democratic environment attracts talented, motivated workers.

It’s for these reasons I believe the tipping system is flawed and should be replaced with a system that compensates labor fairly. Note that I am not saying it is okay to not tip your server. You should tip properly, if only because an exploitative system is in place which actually costs servers money if you do not, and because two wrongs don’t make a right. But that doesn’t mean we have to pretend it is okay to pay anyone $2.13 an hour, regardless of the job they do.  Subminimum wages may be legal, but I can’t be brought to believe they’re in any way ethical, tips or no tips.

And may I just say—reading is fundamental.


Joseph Roberts,