Does the new minimum wage mean an end to tipping?

Rushing through a steep increase in the minimum wage is going to have a number of effects on businesses, the prices consumers pay and employment. All of that is pretty much a given as we’ve discussed here on multiple occasions. At the LA Times, Michael Hiltzik takes a look at how such a change will affect one particular subset of lower wage workers, as well as one of the long established customs of American society… tipping. Strangely, the author seems to feel that tipping is not a plus for wait staff workers who excel at their jobs and bring home more money, but some sort of anchor around their necks.

The gradual move toward a higher minimum wage in many localities has revived the debate over restaurant tipping–not that it’s ever been too far below the surface.

There’s a good reason for the new attention on tipping: a differential between the minimum for tipped and non-tipped workers has been introduced in some places along with the higher minimum. It’s also advocated elsewhere, typically at the suggestion of restaurant owners who say it would moderate the strain on their bottom lines…

[T]ipping is an unfair mess. That’s absolutely true. As it’s practiced in the U.S., tipping is not even well understood by the diners who pay it. It causes resentment among recipients and headaches for their employers, and it’s subject to racial and gender distortions. As fundamental components of workers’ wages, tips are exploitative. According to the National Employment Law Project, they’re “notoriously erratic,” varying from shift to shift and by season, and shrinking during economic downturns.

Hiltzik’s argument will sound familiar to anyone who follows liberal complaints on virtually any subject which touches on the economy. Tipping, he seems to argue, is unfair to the lower paid worker because not everyone receives the same benefit and outside factors can affect how well the worker is compensated. In conservative circles, the explanation for this is summed up in easily digestible terms. The author is looking for equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity.

I happen to be a compulsive tipper, but that’s just how I was raised. I’m not afraid to trim the tip down considerably if the service (not the food) turns out to be terrible, but that’s not all that common of an experience, particularly at higher end dining establishments. If the service is good and the meal is at least passable, I’ll generally leave at least 20% on a decent sized bill, and I’ve been known to go closer for 40% for a really great experience. In the little diner where I have breakfast frequently, my tab at the counter is usually only five or six bucks, but I’ll give them a ten and have them keep the change. I suppose it all comes down to your approach to life.

But the point here isn’t how much an individual tips, but rather whether the system works. It’s not universal, since when I have friends from Europe in town they seem perpetually confused at the idea that you don’t wait for your change. But here in America, it’s a tradition for a reason. Excellent service will bring in the best tips, and a good reputation can move a server up from a lower price joint to a top end restaurant if they are diligent. Servers at one of the best eateries around here have admitted to bringing home a couple hundred bucks from a single shift in tips when the place is busy. That’s nearly a week’s pay for somebody working at minimum wage elsewhere.

Will everyone make that much? Nope. But that’s because some people are better at their jobs than others. The news flash here is that it works pretty much the same way in all private sector endeavors. The people who perform and deliver wind up advancing faster and making more money. Shocking, I know. Some people think of this as incentive to achieve. But liberals see it as the basic unfairness of life in a capitalist society and feel it should be banished. Getting rid of tipping is only the tip of the iceberg for them.

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