The Tipping Point

How gratuitous is gratuity?

Last October, two college students were arrested at a bar in Bethlehem, PA.  Their offense?  Stiffing the waitress – they refused to leave a tip after receiving what they called “terrible, terrible service”, and were brought out in cuffs because of it.  Sort of strange, no?  I mean, since when are tips enforceable by law?  Aren’t they, by definition, gratuitous?  Well here’s the snag: what if it’s a party of eight, as was the case in Bethlem?  And what if the restaurant has a policy, as did the Lehigh Pub, that parties of six or more must pay a mandatory 18% gratuity?  Is there a point where tips turn from superfluities to entitlements?

No, there’s not.  At least that’s what the Bethlehem Township Police decided when they dropped criminal charges against the two tip-gyppers.  Still, the case brings up some interesting issues.

The first is when and where to draw the line between ethics and legality.  After all, the tip-based payment system is one outlined by custom, not law.  In America there’s no rule saying you have to tip 15-20%, just common practice.  Still, this common practice has certainly affected laws, exemplified by the fact that employers need only pay tipped employees $2.13 an hour (compared to the national minimum wage of $7.25).  Tips remain gratuitous in this system thanks to a simple safeguard: should an employee not make enough money in tips to meet the $7.25/hr average for a given paycheck, the employer must foot the difference.  This essentially makes tips unnecessary.  So are they, then, simply tokens of appreciation between the patron and server?   That extra little something meant “to insure promptness”, as the saying goes?  In theory, yes, but in practice its much stickier.


the waitstaff


Take, for example, two imaginary waiters: Timon and Pumba.  Timon is awful at his job and has the tips to prove it – he’s regularly stiffed.  Pumba, on the other hand, is a great waiter but just happens to work for an unprofitable restaurant.  At the end of the week, they both get paychecks averaging to exactly minimum wage.  But while Pumba’s pay is earned solely with his $2.13 wage plus tips, Timon’s is subsidized partially by his employer.  Clearly, in this case Pumba hasn’t seen the benefit of his hard work.  Sure – he may keep his job longer than Timon, but with respect to this particular paycheck, his tips serve as necessary income, not added.

Now I don’t bring up this example to argue that the system is flawed necessarily, just to show how the line between legality and ethics is blurrier than it might seem.  In the case above, who is really financially benefiting from Pumba’s superior service?  Not Pumba himself, but the employer, who is able to pay well below minimum wage while satisfied patrons cover the rest.  Does this put the employer in moral ambiguity?  Maybe… let’s run with it.

If we suggest that employers who pay tipped employees less than minimum wage do so unethically, then it’s not that far of a jump to compare these employers to, say, sellers of stolen purses on the street.  Bear with me.  After all, both the restaurant owner and the purse vendor are making relatively higher profit margins thanks to lower-than-ethical costs.  If we accept that to be true, couldn’t we also deem it morally reprehensible to eat at restaurants?  As a patron, you’d be enjoying the same benefits as the buyer of stolen purses: goods at unethically maintained low prices. In this light, both the restaurant owner and the patron prey on the vulnerability of the employee.

But wait – restaurants aren’t like stolen purse vendors, because in a restaurant, the patron has the ability to compensate for the otherwise unethically low prices (whereas the woman whose purse was stolen probably won’t ever see a dime).  So, while the employer’s minimum wage guarantee keeps the tip-based system from being illegal, it’s the patron’s tips that keep it from being immoral.

Back up again to the case in Bethlehem.  We know it wasn’t illegal for the two students to refuse to tip, but was it immoral in this case?  Sure, they did pay food prices lower than in a regular minimum wage system, but weren’t they also denied an implied part of the meal (service) that they assumed they would get?

This post is getting absurdly long… I don’t really feel the need to see it to a neat conclusion, in part because the point is to show how morally complex the whole system is.  Instead, here’s a couple more questions to throw around:

  1. What if the restaurant patron is ignorant to the tipping procedure, as is the case with foreigners?  If a table of 10 European vacationers leaves no tip, is it tantamount to ignorant theft?
  2. How does the practice of pooling tips affect the system?  If the waiter being stiffed is only one of the many people being affected, is the stiffer less morally vindicated?
  3. Would it make more sense for tips to be directly proportional to service rather than to total meal cost?  For example, a waitress who refills a table’s water glass 10 times would be tipped more than one who opens a single bottle of expensive wine.

The service industry is certainly an interesting animal.  My closing thoughts: regardless of tip, the system is at its best when the patron is conscious of the fact that they’re being served.  It feels nice to be waited on by someone else, whether they come to your table or stay behind the register.  If you appreciate the luxury of service rather than take it for granted, everyone is better off.  Eat, drink, and be merry.  And tip.


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