Tipping in the US is, by and large, an outdated practice. When you think about the inherent power imbalance that such a practice automatically creates between customer and server, it should be no surprise that tipping originates in medieval serfdom in Europe and in the post-Civil War era in the US, where former slaves had no other option but to work for tips. It was created as a way to keep the poorest and most underprivileged members of society oppressed and unable to create better lives for themselves, while the white people who employed them could legally pay them nothing. It was in essence an extension of slavery, like many other antebellum practices.
These days, American servers in certain states can be paid as little as $2.13 per hour by their employers, with the expectation that they will make enough in tips from customers that they will make at least the federal minimum wage, which is $7.25. If they do not make enough in tips to reach this minimum over the course of a pay period (one to two weeks in most places), their employer is legally bound to make up the difference. Unfortunately, many employers instead will punish servers who regularly don’t make enough by reducing their shifts week by week (most servers only know their work schedule a week ahead at most) until the server ends up quitting because they’re unable to make any money at all. Servers who don’t know their rights or who live in areas where their rights are limited, or who simply do not have the time or resources to fight such an injustice, don’t often pursue legal action and employers continue to do it because they’re not held accountable. Restaurants operate on a knife’s edge much of the time — the cost of running such an establishment is immense, moreso if it is located in a high cost-of-living area in a state without the server’s wage, so restaurant owners are keenly aware of the immediate effects of paying servers a living wage rather than the absolute minimum.
There are now several states that have done away with the server’s wage and require that restaurants must pay employees whatever the minimum wage is in their city or county. Places like San Francisco and Seattle aim to ensure everyone is paid at least $15 per hour, the wage generally agreed upon to be close to a living wage in the US. The downside is that it is not actually a living wage in high cost-of-living areas. As such, servers in these areas still rely heavily on tips to pay increasingly high market rents and to afford fresh, good quality food.
Many servers are lifers who make it their career because it can be a good source of income if you work in the right restaurant in the right location. But many others use it only to pay the bills while they study in school for a more financially stable career where they won’t have to be beholden to a customer’s bad mood or unrealistic expectations to make rent that month. Even then they usually expect to have debt once they get their degree because education is so expensive in the US.
A higher minimum wage is a big part of the reason it costs so much to dine in at restaurants in places like San Francisco. On top of that many cities have instituted health mandates, which require restaurants to provide health insurance for their employees; this may take the form of an additional percentage on your check at the end of the meal. Restaurants need to get the money to pay for employee health insurance somewhere, and in doing it this way they are being transparent with customers about where that percentage of the bill is going. Without universal healthcare, this is the only way most servers can afford healthcare at all. Even making $15 an hour plus tips in a city like San Francisco is not enough.
This is the unfortunate reality of American servers. They are beholden to customers for tips and they have to play to their customers’ expectations of good service in order to get it. Whether that means laughing at the dumbest joke they’ve ever heard or tolerating outright verbal abuse, many servers lack the power to stand up for themselves, particularly when they work for employers who care far more about pleasing the worst customer than taking care of their best worker. The worst customers are aware of the power they hold over servers in the form of tips and they abuse this as well. Perhaps they don’t feel that they have much if any power in their day-to-day life and so they find ways to exert power over people who can’t fight back. Other customers, while not outright abusive, still expect a song and dance from their server and will quietly reduce the tip when it comes time to pay, even if their server was professional and gave great service but wasn’t friendly or chatty enough. Some customers will get offended if their server is TOO friendly and chatty and tip less for that too. Even aside from all that, many people just tip very little, regardless of what their server does, either because they don’t know any better or because they’re opposed to tipping as a practice. Servers have no idea which kind of customer they’ll get or what will be on the tip line at the end of the meal; the best servers just have to get really, really good at reading customers as soon as they walk up to a table and hope for the best. This dynamic perpetuates classist ideas that keep the server in a perpetual state of subservience to the customer, when in fact they are a professional performing a highly valued job and should be respected as such.
Unfortunately, the fact remains that this system exists and is unlikely to go away anytime soon, between business owners not wanting or being able to afford to pay higher wages and servers who happen to make a lot through tips not wanting to give up this source of income. The best practice, then, when dining in at a restaurant is to be polite to your server, aware of what is and isn’t their fault, and tip around 20% if the service is good. In decades past 15% was considered fine, and in the decades before that 10% was more than plenty. But in case you hadn’t heard, times change and what counts as a good tip changes too. Minimum wage in most places has remained stagnant or hasn’t kept up with increasing living costs (yes, even in cities that pay $15/hour). Until we as a country decide to abolish tipping and institute a true living wage on the federal level, this is the situation we’re in, together. The best thing we can do is help each other.
The COVID-19 pandemic is an especially important time to do for our neighbors. We may not be able to dine in at restaurants in most places right now, but if you’re still ordering takeout, you should definitely be tipping, most especially if the person putting your order together is clearly an hourly employee. There is an old or perhaps modern saying “If you can’t afford to tip, you can’t afford to dine in” and it holds true during this unprecedented global disaster even when we’re not dining in at all. Restaurants are barely holding on and most employees have been laid off, but the few who still go in to work every day thankful to keep their jobs appreciate tips more than ever. Tip at least 20% as if you were dining in and know that your 20% has made someone’s day a little easier, whether because it’ll help them afford their own meal after work, or because it’ll go towards the bills, or even knowing they’ll buy themselves a beer after a challenging day. Even if you disagree with tipping as a practice, in times like these it’s simply a kind, human thing to do. We are in a time of great division and discord and grappling with a serious public health crisis. If nothing else, the kindness we show each other during such a challenging time can be paid forward again and again.