New Law Is Good News For Waiters & People Who Hate Tipping

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Tipping — the practice where random people get to decide how someone else gets paid for a given day's work — might be one step closer to dying, at least in New York. We say it's about time. On Tuesday, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo signed a law that raises the minimum wage for servers and bartenders to $7.50 an hour — up from as low as $4.90 an hour in some places now. For everyone else in New York, the minimum wage is $8.75 an hour.  The justification for the lower minimum wage, of course, is that those service workers make up the difference in tips. But, the issue has a way of stirring up serious controversy. Supporters would say they like being able to reward (or not reward) their server for a job well done. And, restaurants enjoy major cost-cutting by farming out the responsibility of paying workers to customers. But, there has been a rising tide of arguments as to why we should stop tipping — and start really paying — our waiters and bartenders. For one, tipping leads to tremendous economic instability for workers. “It's very strange to put the power to decide my salary not in the hands of my superiors, but in those of my guests," says a New York City waiter at a fine-dining restaurant who asked us not to use his name. "It creates a power dynamic that is quite unique, not particularly fair, and often a bit demeaning.” In most other jobs, eight hours of work means a certain amount of pay.  Raising the tipped minimum wage is also a move towards economic justice: According to the National Employment Law Project, the poverty rate among tipped employees is more than double that of the overall workforce. Currently, the federal minimum wage for tipped employees is an abysmal $2.13, and 17 states stick with that. Only seven states, including California and Washington, mandate that waiters get the same minimum wage as everyone else.  And, tipping is not a global practice: Lots of countries around the world pay their waiters and continue to have fully functioning restaurants. European and Australian service workers get paid equitably, with benefits and savings plans. Tipping is optional and supplemental. In Japan, tipping is not merely not obligatory, it's insulting.  On our fair shores, while tipping is a powerful habit — it's an arbitrary one. We’re so used to penciling in 18% or 20% after a meal, or leaving ones atop a bar. But, imagine if we paid theaters based on how much we enjoyed their films, or tipped our physicians generously because they didn’t make us wait endlessly and gave us decent care. Sure, other employees may see financial benefits for a job well done. But, no one else relies so completely on the whims of customers. “People have the cynical belief that servers wouldn't do their jobs if they were just getting paid hourly,” says Brian Keyser, who owns Casellula Cheese & Wine Café in NYC. “But, this idea is ludicrous. In almost every other industry, employees get paid hourly or salaries, and we don't assume that they won't do their jobs. “The cost of a product should reflect the cost of getting that product to the customer," Keyser continues. "When you buy a shirt or a car, that's the case. But when you buy food in a restaurant, the cost is artificially low, because the customer is expected to pay for the server on their own, with a tip. That doesn't make any sense. But, to correct that problem, we'd have to raise prices, and no one wants to do that.”  Keyser has considered paying his staff salary and eliminating tipping, but “I don't believe that most customers would do the math and understand that my prices, without tip, are similar to my competitors' prices, plus tip. They would just see my prices and think they were 20% too expensive.”  There are, however, signs that this antiquated practice might be coming to an end. “The way we tip for service is changing fast,” wrote San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer in an opinion piece. “It feels good to know the price on the menu is actually the price I’m paying, no calculating necessary. It’s civilized — and the wave of the future.” A handful of restaurants around the country, including New York City's Sushi Yasuda, have already started banning tipping and paying their servers more. The change in New York law is one more step in that direction. Perhaps, one day soon, we'll reach a (no) tipping point.