Emily Articulated: Tipping

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

I spent an entire decade of my life in a tip-based industry, waiting tables, tending bar and tour-guiding at everything from college pubs to fine dining restaurants to après-ski bars to garden-side wedding venues. I chose these jobs for their translatability — using my skills to move anywhere in the country, often to highly sought-after places, and financially support myself. I also chose them for the baked-in community of service industry folks that accompany the non-traditional schedule and unique pace of work (other trade regulars to swap stories with on “today’s my Friday” Tuesdays). And I chose them for the opportunity to earn tips.

Emily Erickson.

Tipping as we know it began as a tradition of European aristocrats, who demonstrated favor to their servants through bonuses on top of their wages — a practice that Americans originally rejected for its incompatibility with their hard-earned egalitarianism. 

Prior to the U.S. Civil War, exchanging gratuity for services rendered represented, for many Americans, a lopsided power dynamic, with one person exercising a form of control over another’s financial outcome. But in the late-1800s and early-1900s, our cultural shift toward tip-subsidized service industry wages began.

Drawing on racial and gendered roots, we adapted the European tipping system to one even less egalitarian, in which a worker’s wage was either non-existent or well below the minimum earned in comparable industries. It became customary to not pay or underpay employees in the service-based jobs, which of course were disproportionately held by women and people of color, in exchange for the “opportunity” to earn tips. 

This concept was codified in 1938 through the establishment of a sub-minimum wage for disabled and service-based employees, making it legal for employers to compensate their workers well below the nation’s minimum. This standard, albeit with stricter regulations, is still upheld in 43 states today. In Idaho, the minimum cash wage for tipped employees is $3.30/hour, making tips the foundation of employees’ earnings.

Despite the guaranteed low wage, many people (my former self included) opt for tipped-based service jobs for the chance at high earnings during “good tip” shifts. On any given day, and at the whim of any generous customer, a service employee has the potential of earning well above the national minimum. There were many occasions when I finished a shift, wallet stuffed with cash, feeling like I won the lottery. And others where I was one “pretty smile” request away from flipping a table (but I’ll save the disproportionately high incidence of sexual harassment in the service industry for another article).

Lately, and since the great-rearranging of social norms and expectations sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, it feels like we’re at the precipice of another cultural shift regarding tipping in America. With concepts like auto-gratuities, three-option digital tip prompts and tip-creeping, our unwritten rules of tipping etiquette are gradually evolving. 

More frequently than ever, I find myself asking “is 25% the new 20%?”; “How much am I supposed to leave on to-go orders, again?”; and, most significantly, “Wait, am I supposed to tip for this now, too?”

Upon scouring the internet and asking my peers for the answers to these questions, it seems that some folks are charging forward into a new, more generous tipping paradigm, while others remain firmly rooted in the formerly established etiquette (and others still, are simply exhausted by trying to keep up with changing expectations). 

Appropriate tipping at dine-in establishments seems to remain at 20% of your bill, but with the caveat of that percentage being largely removed from the quality of service rendered. Tipping 20%, with the exception of a server’s rudeness or really poor execution of their duties, seems to be the new baseline, with 25% and even 30% gratuities left for exceptional service. Leaving a dollar per beverage or 15-20% of bar or coffee counter bill has largely remained unchanged, and to-go orders — arguably the most confusing due to pandemic-related shifts in demand — now range from 15-20% of the order’s total, plus an additional sum for delivery. As for non-restaurant industry work and the newest industries to the tipping scene, your guess is as good as mine (but 10%-20% seems to be a good rule of thumb).

In general, the consensus is that service and tipping-based jobs are hard and that everybody deserves a consistent and livable wage. In our current system, whether we like it or not, customers exchange lower prices and high-quality service for the expectation of subsidizing employees’ wages — holding the power to make or break another person’s financial security with the amount they leave on the tip line. 

Of all the thoughts people shared on the subject of tipping, the most practical was, “If you can’t afford to tip well, don’t go out to eat.” Similarly poignant was, “If you’re in a position to be generous, be generous, always” — an applicable sentiment for most aspects of life, I think.

Emily Erickson is a writer and business owner with an affinity for black coffee and playing in the mountains. Connect with her online at www.bigbluehat.studio. 

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