December 8, 2021

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Should We End the Practice of Tipping?

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Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Do you ever tip people for their service? For instance, after riding in a taxi, receiving a food delivery or eating at a restaurant? Why or why not? And if yes, how much money do you generally pay? A dollar? Ten percent? Twenty percent? More?

Have you ever received a tip while working? If so, did you feel pride or satisfaction? Or was it awkward or perhaps even insulting?

In your opinion, do you think tipping is an appropriate way to show gratitude and reward excellent service? Or is it an antiquated, unfair and harmful practice?

In “Tipping Is a Legacy of Slavery,” Michelle Alexander argues that we need to abolish what has become a subminimum wage for many workers, especially in restaurants:

Once upon a time, I thought that it was perfectly appropriate for restaurant workers to earn less than minimum wage. Tipping, in my view, was a means for customers to show gratitude and to reward a job well done. If I wanted to earn more as a restaurant worker, then I needed to hustle more, put more effort into my demeanor, and be a bit more charming.

I thought this even when I was a waitress, working at a burger and burrito joint called Munchies during the summers when I was a college student. Collecting tips gave me a certain satisfaction. I liked sweeping dollar bills and coins off tables into the front pocket of my blue apron. Each time someone left me a big tip, anything more than I expected, a tiny jolt of dopamine flooded my brain as though I had just hit a mini jackpot. I got upset when people stiffed me, walking out and leaving nothing or just pennies — a true insult — but whenever that happened I reminded myself that I might get lucky next time. Or I would do better somehow.

Never did it occur to me that it was fundamentally unjust for me to earn less than the minimum wage and to depend on the good will of strangers in order to earn what was guaranteed by law to most workers. I had no idea that tipping was a legacy of slavery or that racism and sexism had operated to keep women, especially Black women like me, shut out of federal protections for wage labor. I did not question tipping as a practice, though looking back I see that I should have.

Ms. Alexander describes how she grew to question and turn against the system and practice of tipping:

After I graduated from law school, I became a civil rights lawyer and began representing victims of race and gender discrimination in employment, as well as victims of racial profiling and police violence. But it wasn’t until I read Saru Jayaraman’s book, “Forked: A New Standard for American Dining,” that I learned the history of tipping in the United States. After the Civil War, white business owners, still eager to find ways to steal Black labor, created the idea that tips would replace wages. Tipping had originated in Europe as “noblesse oblige,” a practice among aristocrats to show favor to servants. But when the idea came to the United States, restaurant corporations mutated the idea of tips from being bonuses provided by aristocrats to their inferiors to becoming the only source of income for Black workers they did not want to pay. The Pullman Company tried to get away with it too, but the Black porters, under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, formed the nation’s first Black union to be affiliated with the American Federation of Labor and fought and won higher wages with tips on top.

Restaurant workers, however — who were mostly women — were not so fortunate. The unjust concept of tips as wages remained in place for them. And in 1938, when Franklin Roosevelt signed the nation’s first minimum wage into law, it excluded restaurant workers, a category that included a disproportionate number of Black people.

American businesses after the Civil War sought to make tips the only source of income for Black workers they did not want to pay, like restaurant workers and railway porters.

In 1966, when our nation’s minimum wage was overhauled, restaurant workers were even more formally cut out with the creation of a subminimum wage for tipped workers. Today, 43 states and the federal government still persist with this legacy of slavery, allowing a tipped work force that is close to 70 percent female and disproportionately Black and brown women to be paid a subminimum wage. A nation that once enslaved Black people and declared them legally 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.

The essay concludes by arguing for the passage of the Raise the Wage Act in Congress:

Fortunately, the subminimum wage for tipped workers might finally come to an end if Congress enacts the minimum wage policy in President Biden’s new $1.9 trillion relief package in its entirety. The Raise the Wage Act, if passed, would not only raise the minimum wage to $15 minimum wage but also fully phase out the subminimum wage for tipped workers. This would be good news for women and people of color who’ve been denied a living wage and forced to endure harassment on the job, but it would ultimately benefit all tipped workers — and restaurants too. Workers in the seven states that have One Fair Wage receive similar or even higher tips as the workers in 43 states with a subminimum wage, and restaurants in those seven states have higher sales.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • Do any of the experiences described by Ms. Alexander working as a waitress and earning tips resonate with your own? How do your experiences of tipping or being tipped shape your views on the practice?

  • Ms. Alexander argues that “the subminimum wage for tipped workers isn’t simply born of racial injustice; it continues to perpetuate both race and gender inequity today.” Do you agree? How persuasive do you find her argument that tipping is “fundamentally unjust”? After reading the essay, do you think we should end the practice of tipping? Why or why not?

  • While the essay begins with her personal experiences, Ms. Alexander presents a lot of historical and statistical evidence to support her contention that tipping is fundamentally unjust, such as that the nation’s first minimum wage signed into law in 1938 “excluded restaurant workers, a category that included a disproportionate number of Black people.” Which historical connections did you find most eye-opening, surprising, memorable or persuasive and why?

  • What do you think can be done to improve or fix the current tipping system in the United States? Should more states pass One Fair Wage — a full minimum wage with tips on top? Do you think Congress should enact the Raise the Wage Act, which would both raise the minimum wage to $15 and fully phase out the subminimum wage for tipped workers? Why or why not? What other solutions would you recommend to address what Ms. Alexander calls a “racist, sexist subminimum wage” for service workers?

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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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