Tuesday, July 1, 2008

On Tipping, and Workers' Rights

As one of my first jobs, I bussed tables at a busy restaurant downtown. Although never a server myself, I worked closely with the servers, and as part of the payment structure of this particular restaurant, received a cut of the servers' tips, which - during a lunch rush with seven servers - was often substantial. In Ontario, restaurant servers can be paid below minimum wage because they receive tips to supplement their income. At restaurants that are expensive and/or busy, servers can make a great deal of money.

Working in foodservice, I became acquainted with advantages and disadvantages of this system, including: the injustice of diners who don't tip fairly (either because they are stingy or because they may be from countries where restaurant servers are not tipped); the use of tips to show appreciation or displeasure; and servers who are rude to customers and wonder why they earn less than their coworkers. (An aside: I've read that Americans think Canadians are lousy tippers. But where I worked - in Eaton Centre, where a large part of the clientele are tourists - servers regarded the American tourists as lousy tippers. Maybe it's a problem with tourists in general?)

Recently, I met friends for dinner and drinks on a patio at a pub. The place wasn't full, but it was busy with a large party inside. Our server was polite and amiable, but... absent. Throughout the night, we had to flag him down for every request or refill; he was completely cooperative, but not attentive. He did the bare minimum; at no time did he check in to see how we were, ask how our food was, or find out if we wanted anything else.

A little background here: all five of us are socialists, and are well aware of the struggle for workers' rights. Many socialists will support workers' rights unconditionally. So at the end of the night, when I suggested an adequate but not generous tip, one of my friends pointed out that restaurant servers are underpaid, and that the tip should not be contingent on the quality of service. I was caught off guard by this view, but becoming involved in activism in general has taught me to challenge and question the same old opinions I have held for many years. Should servers be given a standard tip, regardless of how they perform their duties?

Pro
• Consider other professions: lawyers, doctors, teachers, non-commissioned sales people, plumbers, and construction workers, to name a few. All are paid a standard salary - some with performance-based perks (as a private school teacher, I received some pretty nice gifts at xmas and year-end). But none are dependent, daily, on their customers' - or anyone else's - behaviour, for their pay. Why should restaurant work be any different?
• Servers' tips are frequently divided, with shares going to other employees who don't have contact with the customers. Should cooks or dishwashers be punished because the server might be incompetent?
• Should a worker in a shitty job in a shitty workplace be punished for being unable to smile? The right-wing viewpoint that anyone in capitalist society can climb to the top doesn't jibe with the reality of the worker living below the poverty line (often an immigrant, or a single mother - or both) who works two or three jobs to make ends meet, and doesn't have the time or resources to hit the pavement to find something better.

Con
• There is a class of worker - typically actors or college students - who may also need their money for basic living expenses, but who come in with certain expectations and perhaps a sense of entitlement as to what they "deserve" out of life. This is a gross generalization, but what I refer to is the type of person who can easily look for a different line of work if need be. They are not desperate to make ends meet, and often their income is blown on luxuries. A number of people I've worked with spent much of their disposable income on recreational drugs. It is often this type who seem to think the tip at the end of the meal is mandatory, rather than voluntary. That very attitude is something that gets my back up, and leaves me struggling to decide how much to pay at the end of the meal.
• The system is imperfect, but so are many of our society's structures. Those who take on a job as a restaurant server know at the outset what the payment system entails, and have to realize that the gratuity portion of their income is never guaranteed.
• If every customer paid a full 15% to every server, regardless of quality of service, it would remove any incentive for servers to do their jobs well.

Back to the case of my recent pub night: it could be that management erred by not ensuring enough staff were on duty, in which case it is the management that should be blamed for poor service, and not the servers. (It seemed to me that the restaurant was well staffed.) But a short-staffing situation can be partly rectified if the server explains the situation to the customer, which I have witnessed on occasion, and a warning to the customer can be very good PR: it sets up the customer's expectations in advance, calls attention a difficult situation, and prevents the build-up of resentment through the stay.

This past weekend, we had an annual Pride pub meet (at the same pub every year). The place is always busy on Pride Saturday, and there is never enough staff. Yet a friend commented on the fact that he has noticed how the staff are always cheerful despite conditions, and the service is always more than adequate. In addition to being gay-friendly, they are always efficient and more than accommodating to help us squeeze a large group onto their busy front patio. For this kind of service, I am always happy to tip generously. Shouldn't there be a distinction for this kind of service?

In thinking this through over the last week or so, what I realize is that there are two situations: the underpaid worker who needs the tips for actual survival, vs. the young, able-bodied person who seeks a server position with the specific intent to earn part of their income tax-free, and is not willing to adjust behaviour to the often heavy demands of such a job. It's not that hard to recognize the distinction between the two. I already make a point of generously tipping the former in most cases, although I'd still have trouble leaving a full tip if the service were really nasty. In the case of the latter, though, I am not convinced that anyone deserves to be given the free "pass go and collect $200" card.

I don't think we should follow tradition for its own sake. In an imperfect system, I think I've settled on a happy medium. But I'm open to other ideas...

6 comments:

L-girl said...

I can't see tipping as ever being fair or warranted. I think it's a horrible system.

How about a standard 15 or 20 % added to the bill, then you can always tip more for extra-great service if you like?

In Newfoundland, I overheard a conversation between an Australian tourist and a tourist from Ontario. The Australian was saying the price of food in restaurants is deceiving because it doesn't include tax or tip, and he's not accustomed to that. He asked the guy from Ontario, Am I supposed to always add the 15%?

To my amazement, the man from Ontario said no! He said the tip must reflect your satisfaction with the meal.

I was burning up inside. It was really inappropriate for me to butt in (although a younger me would have butt in anyway!), but it really pissed me off.

I have to say I subscribe to the stereotype of Cdns as bad tippers, based on my conversations with Cdn friends. But like all stereotypes, who knows.

L-girl said...

A number of people I've worked with spent much of their disposable income on recreational drugs.

As a diner or drinker, it's really not your business what your server spends his or earnings on.

We wouldn't want employers to pay workers according to the worthiness of how they spent their pay. If you withheld a tip because you thought the server was spending the money on drugs as opposed to, say, books, you would be that employer, no?

If every customer paid a full 15% to every server, regardless of quality of service, it would remove any incentive for servers to do their jobs well.

I get paid the same amount if I'm having a bad day or a good day. My employer is not allowed to dock my pay if I have a crappy day. A server is entitled to the same.

I still have incentive to do a good job. I want to keep my job, for one thing. And I have some personal pride.

Kim_in_TO said...

I can't see tipping as ever being fair or warranted. I think it's a horrible system.

Agreed - it's a shame that servers are not simply paid a higher wage, and that a gratuity be added to the bill, as is done in other countries. In face, I am relieved when the gratuity is added here, as is usually done with large parties.

To my amazement, the man from Ontario said no! He said the tip must reflect your satisfaction with the meal.

I was burning up inside. It was really inappropriate for me to butt in (although a younger me would have butt in anyway!), but it really pissed me off.


But that is the reality of the system here. The whole point of my post was to discuss whether we should rethink how we regard the system. But we have to acknowledge that in this system, the tip is regarded as voluntary and contingent on the quality of the service. Whether we accept that, we cannot expect the majority to agree or even be aware of the issue.

it's really not your business what your server spends his or earnings on.

Of course not, and I tried to make the point that it doesn't make sense to treat restaurant servers differently when it comes to their wages. But my point was that on the odd occasion you do get treated like shit, and that's not something I accept from just anyone. If it turns out that the reason for someone's poor behaviour is they are caught in a crappy serving job with no way out, then I would have some sympathy. But I am less inclined to be understanding with people like the ones I used to work with, some of whom should not have been in positions in which they were interacting with the general public, and who were easily able to obtain work elsewhere. My argument is not that servers should justify how they spend their money, but rather that there are circumstances under which I would forgive poor service.

L-girl said...

I understand. I thought you were playing devil's advocate, so I was just arguing with the devil guy.

waterloowarrior said...

Doctor's generally aren't paid by salary, they are paid on a fee-for-service basis in which they bill OHIP for a procedure and/or examination according to OHIP's fee schedule. 70% are self employed according to jobfutures. A doctor's livlihood also depends on how many customers/patients he has; if you're a bad doctor people will look for a new one, and if your clinic is poorly run you won't see as many patients as you could and you'll earn less money.


50% of lawyers/judges/notaries are also self-employed.

Kim_in_TO said...

Doctor's generally aren't paid by salary

I stand corrected. This is sort of missing the point, though. Doctors, lawyers, and notaries are not paid below minimum wage.