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  • Karen Tran-Harding

COVID-19 brought back the restaurant tipping debate in America



In the pre-COVID era, leaving the house for a nice dinner out ranked high as one of my favorite activities. When the coronavirus pandemic hit and lockdown protocols were put in place to help slow the spread of disease, not only was I dismayed that I wouldn’t be able to see my family or friends in person, I was a little saddened that I couldn’t dine out at a restaurant anymore.


So, it’s extremely disheartening that with the global pandemic surging on, the restaurant industry has been suffering tremendously. Here in California with our most recent shutdown of all sit-down dining and probably more weeks of self-isolation in our near future, a lot of restaurants will not survive this global health crisis.


Posts about the hurdles restaurant workers are experiencing have been prevalent across social media. I recently came across a rather distressing post that really highlighted these extreme difficulties. The original poster wrote:


“Please. Restaurants are not doing okay right now, especially small restaurants like the one I work at. I just clocked out from my shift today and I’m fighting tears right now. I walked with $2”.


“We survive on tips. I know, I know, ‘get a real job.’ This is how I and many other people survive. So please, if you can afford to get take out, you should budget in the tip.”


The original post from Reddit

You would think that this would spark nothing but empathy but oh no, this is the internet.


A lot of responses immediately condemned the restaurant server for assuming that they deserve a tip when those working other essential jobs such as retail and fast-food workers are also dealing with difficult jobs, are paid the same wage, but don’t have opportunities to make tip money. For context, here in California, food service workers make the same minimum wage as retail workers do. In other states, the federal minimum wage is $2.13 an hour and tips are presumed to cover the rest. Then there is the minimum wage for other workers which is $7.25 an hour.


Others argued that if the original poster cannot afford their current lifestyle because they budget on the promise of tips, it did not mean the rest of the population should subsidize their inability to make rent. Commenters argued that many people are moving home with their parents, moving, getting extra roommates, or getting multiple jobs. This of course, led to its own important debate about what a living wage should even be.


And what soon followed was a fierce discussion on the flawed tipping industry as a whole.


Tipping is more prevalent in America than other countries and is a custom in which most diners feel obliged to participate. It began when travelers from Europe brought tipping to the United States after the Civil War. Gratuity was offered to unskilled laborers, many of whom were former slaves and immigrants, with some employers seeing it as an opportunity to offload the burden of paying workers a fair wage by encouraging customers to make up the difference.


It has been found that tipping has amplified racial inequalities with one particular study showing that minorities make less hourly tips than their white counterpoints. Women are also tipped less than men, “attractive” people at a higher percentage than those deemed “unattractive,” and younger staff tend to make more than their elder counterparts. The study also found that the tipping system causes servers to have biases against those they serve, with 39% of servers admitting that they do have bias against patrons of color and try to turn the table over quicker or give slower service because of the belief that those patrons tip less.


The tipping model is also inevitably a breeding ground for sexual harassment in the food industry. Because in an industry where the “customer is always right”, your income (and online restaurant review) is dependent on your positive relationship with the diner.


It’s been long obvious that the tipping model is completely faulty but historically its eradication has been a difficult process for restaurateurs. Danny Meyer of the Union Square Hospitality Group in New York City tried to eliminate tipping at his eateries but the coronavirus pandemic forced him to walk back his efforts.


And in current times, where multiple negative reviews and the internet can make or break an already struggling restaurant, methods to eliminate tips can be harmful to a restaurant’s survival. Andrea Borgen of Barcito in downtown L.A. switched to the no-tip model after a few months and mildly increased prices with the biggest jump on a braised short rib dish which went from $13 to $16. She said that their “braised short rib, once met with rave reviews began to be described as ‘small’ and ‘underwhelming’ at $16”. Their Google listing price also changed showing a price rating of three dollar signs ($$$) instead of the previous one ($), which makes the restaurant out of budget for some patrons who may have become new customers.


We also have to be cognizant that there have been local eateries that have tried to eliminate the practice of tipping but with potentially flawed results. One such restaurant is a very popular restaurant in Southern California serving craft ramen bowls. This particular eatery has abolished tipping and instead charges customers a 15% service charge with the insistence that servers are paid well. Browsing through employee reviews of said restaurant include comments such as the “15% service charge goes directly to the company but many people think it’s tip” and that although promised a flat rate of $19.50, a certain employee stated that they ended up being paid $13-14 an hour with cash tips going to the kitchen rather than the servers. These online reviews could very well be completely false but if factual, the restaurant owners (who likely had good intentions) ended up with subpar results that did not benefit their employees as intended.


Just like with a lot of other things, COVID-19 has brought to light significant pay disparities and flawed systems including the tipping model in the United States. And there is some hope to eliminating tips - restaurants such as Restaurant Olivia in Denver do get some positive response with some customers thanking the owners for “removing the anxiety they feel while paying, sitting in judgement of wait staff whose livelihood they hold in the balance”.


The coronavirus pandemic has made it an extremely difficult time for restaurants, their servers and workers, and even for paying customers right now. But until the restaurant industry is stable enough to attempt to fix the tipping model, for those of us that can afford it and are willing to, it’s important to continue to support the restaurant industry (especially the local ones) as much as we possibly can.

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