Tipping is out of control. It is also a serious workplace problem

tOr to tip or not to tip? It’s a simple question with a deeply complicated answer, at least in the U.S. Here, the practice of throwing a few dollars at a service worker when you pay your bill in full is not only common, but expected in many industries, from grocery delivery to coffee. stores. And while European tourists may have a hard time deciphering the rules, Americans are well aware of how they work. And it is more than likely that they have a very strong opinion, probably negative, about it. It would be difficult to find someone who tastes the American tipping system, from customers who resent paying more to workers who are often paid too little.

However, tipping culture and all the discourse that accompanies it is really just a way to obscure the real problem: the continued existence of the subminimum wage and the resulting expectation that consumers (and their tips) will compensate. the lost wages that employers receive. avoid paying.

For many workers, tips often represent a significant portion of their take-home pay. While some (like waiters and servers at upscale restaurants, for example) manage to make a lot of money from tips, there is always someone who suffers; Deprived of that same opportunity, kitchen workers like dishwashers and cooks, who are already financially disadvantaged, are left even further behind. Other workers who rely on tips may find their own earning opportunities restricted by vindictive employers; For example, after the dancers at North Hollywood’s Star Garden strip club unionized, their angry boss instituted new rules that made it nearly impossible for them to earn more than a few dollars a night.

Read more: How much should I tip? Five people share their habits

The only people who really benefit from this custom are those at the top: the people who own restaurants, hotels, delivery apps, and other businesses, and who take home most of the profits. Under federal labor law, employers can get away with paying tipped workers just $2.13 an hour; If the tips workers receive don’t add up to the federal hourly minimum wage of $7.25, their bosses must make up the difference. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. In 2017, the Economic Policy Institute found that workers in the 10 most populous states were being robbed of more than $8 billion a year thanks to minimum wage violations, and the problem is only getting worse. In 2023 alone, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division recovered more than $29 million in back wages and damages for restaurant workers.

It’s not just about the money either. The practice of tipping in the United States is deeply rooted in racism, sexism, and ableism. As a civil rights advocate and author of The new Jim Crowwrote Michelle Alexander in a 2021 article New York Times Op-ed: “A nation that once enslaved black people and legally declared them three-fifths of a person now pays many of their descendants less than a third of the minimum wage to which everyone else is entitled.”

Alexander also noted that the tipped workforce, which is 70% women, is disproportionately made up of black and brown women. This is not a coincidence. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, he established the country’s first minimum wage, but he conspicuously excluded several classes of workers, including domestic, farm, and restaurant workers, who at the time from the history were predominantly black. Racist employers who resented being told to pay their black workers adequately began encouraging customers to tip them as a means of control. Then, as now, tipped workers are forced to put up with bad customer behavior and perform additional emotional labor to avoid being financially harmed. penalized.

Read more: It’s the legacy of slavery: Here’s the troubling story behind tipping practices in the US.

Appreciating the financial boost, workers despised the system itself. When the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black-led union recognized by the American Federation of Labor, fought for higher wages, they succeeded in 1937 and kept their tips. It was a big victory, but Pullman’s maids, all black and Asian women who also relied on tips, were excluded from the union contract. Even then, women were expected to bear the brunt of the tipping system and continue to endure its most negative effects.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 also gave employers the right to pay workers in certain categories even less than the newly established minimum wage—a subminimum wage. As I mention in my book, FIGHT LIKE HELL: The Untold Story of American Labor, among them were disabled workers “whose income or productive capacity is affected by age, physical or mental impairment, or injury.” That subminimum wage remains in effect and continues to be a source of economic discrimination against disabled workers employed by corporations such as Goodwill, Walmart and others. “I think it’s horrible,” Frances Mablin, a young black woman with cerebral palsy, author of A Fair Wage: Ending Subminimum Wage in America. “People with disabilities should be treated as equal to other people. “We should get the minimum wage.”

The rise of the sharing economy (a fancy term for the app-driven atomization of the modern workforce) has only exacerbated tipping problems. It’s not just workers in the restaurant and hospitality industries who now rely on tips; delivery drivers, ride-sharing app drivers, and other app-based workers who work for companies like Uber, Doordash, Lyft that refuse to recognize them as employees (and have spent millions squashing proposed labor laws that sought to change that ). As workers continue to be pushed out of their stable jobs and into the wilderness of freelancing and gig work, tips will become more important to even more people—until we do something about it.

Clearly, something is wrong here, and it shouldn’t take a labor historian to tell you that too many of America’s most vulnerable workers are being exploited while their employers get away with it. Until our outdated labor laws are finally updated to reflect the realities of the modern workforce and profit-grabbing employers lose their ability to pass the buck (both figuratively and metaphorically) to customers, tipping will continue to rip off workers. and taking away a fair salary. While some restaurants and cafes have experimented with tip-free models and cities like Chicago have led the way in abolishing the subminimum wage for tipped workers, there is still a long way to go before American workers are finally free of the subminimum wage (and even more). before we finally get the living wage we really need!). However, one thing is certain; As activists, organizers, and policymakers continue to push toward this necessary goal, we must ensure that workers are not left with the bill.

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