A solution to America’s confusion about tipping

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(AP Photo/Green Bay Press-Gazette, Evan Siegle)

The wait staff in the state of Maine last month successfully fought to reverse a 2016 referendum raising their minimum wage from $3.75 to $12 by 2024. They felt the increase would cause customers to leave a smaller tip.

And here I thought we had tipping down to a science.

For a long time, I had a policy of tipping servers in restaurants 20 percent of the total bill. It was slightly more generous than the universally recommended 15 percent gratuity and it was a quicker mathematical calculation — multiplying the tab by two and adjusting the decimal point. Some think 20 percent is excessive or that it tends to inflate expectations, but for the many wait staffers paid less than minimum wage, the extra dollar or two can be significant.


Since the beginning of the 21st century, as the country has shifted even more sharply from a manufacturing to a service economy, gratuities for service have become more important than ever. Because the shift has been accompanied by a decline in membership in labor unions and a 4 percent reduction in income for the American working middle class, what consumers choose to leave for a tip can be crucial for workers’ families.

In a development that puts an even greater squeeze on customers’ wallets, it’s not just waiters and waitresses expecting gratuities these days. Hairdressers, coffee shop clerks, Lyft and Uber drivers, fishing guides, golf caddies, parking attendants, altar boys and girls, bartenders, sky caps, delivery drivers and cover bands are among the myriad of low and modest wage workers who have their hands out and lids off their tip jars.

In an attempt to deal with this increased demand, I decided to adjust my tipping strategy based on my experience with a handful of marinas and tackle shops.

Whenever I go fishing, I usually buy two dozen of whatever type and size of critters they have in their live tanks. If the clerk generously scoops two “baker’s dozens”, I end up with 30 or 40 minnows instead of precisely 24. I pay the listed price while adding roughly 20 percent to the tip jar. I think of it as “tip” for tat, or a 20 percent gratuity for their giving me roughly 20 percent more than what I requested.

Extrapolating that formula to transactions at restaurants, barber shops, taxi cabs and so on, I give 20 percent to those who give a “baker’s dozen” in service or courtesy — such as with a cab that is punctual and extra clean or a barber who shuts the hell up.

Cabbies and barbers who don’t make the effort get only a flat 15 percent. For the rare slacker who fails to meet even minimum expectations — such as the barber who not only blathers on, but insists on volunteering his political philosophy — I emulate my accountant’s practice of tipping 15 percent of the bill before tax is added.

Unfortunately, my bait bucket philosophy turns out to be all wet. As my wife pointed out: “You should not reward the bait shop worker who robs his boss to give you more minnows.”

Her point not only is valid, but seems applicable to other situations, such as when a hardware store clerk throws an extra handful of nails into the bag or the bartender winks and says, “This one’s on me.” Tipping that bartender for stealing from the bar owner might seem justifiable when the bartender is not paid minimum wage, but it still is not right. And who has not known a bartender who says he or she was paid “off the books.” There are so many levels of ethics, morality and even tax law at play that patrons become even more confused.

In the past several years, a few restaurant and bar owners tried to resolve tipping inequities by instituting and publicizing a “no gratuity” policy. The idea was that cooks, dishwashers and bus boys have been unfairly deprived of tips which they deserve just as much as wait staff. So, a handful of restaurant owners raised everyone’s wages by 15 percent, raised menu prices by 15 percent and prohibited tipping altogether.

That should have made everyone happy.

Instead, the unanticipated consequence was that wait staff fled these establishments in droves to find work at traditional restaurants where they could still hustle and earn more money. Turnover became so high that service at the no-tipping restaurants suffered badly — as did their bottom lines. The owners bemoaned the fact that the experiment might have worked if only every restaurant in the neighborhood followed suit, eliminating the temptation of the wait staff to switch jobs.

And therein lies the solution to America’s tipping conundrum: Congress needs to pass a bill that forbids tipping nationwide.

Tipping has been outlawed before. In 1909, six states made it a misdemeanor to accept tips. But the laws all were repealed once workers left en masse to work in any of the other 46 states where it was legal — thus the need for a federal statute covering the entire country.

Of course, there would be some initial resistance by business owners opposed to the necessity of raising wages and prices, by wait staff who had learned how to optimize the old system, by door men and Starbucks clerks who’d lose out on a perk and by math teachers grieving the demise of America’s last need for multiplication.

But I’ve got a feeling that the rest of us would be gratuitously, if not deliriously, happy.

David McGrath is Emeritus English professor at College of DuPage.

Email: mcgrathd@dupage.edu

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com

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