I’ve never been tipped.

My first jobs were in restaurants, but in the kitchen, not out front with the customers. I’ve installed carpeting, cashiered in a grocery store and answered customer-service phones in a call center. For the past 25 years, I’ve worked in newspapers where a tip is something that gets whispered in your ear. No one has ever said, “Keep the change.”

Maybe that’s why I’ve never understood why we have one set of rules for just about every job in the economy, and another for waiters and waitresses. Most of us are hired by an employer and get paid by the hour. Simple. Restaurant servers have to depend on total strangers abiding by an unwritten rule of conduct and voluntarily paying more than required. Diners can be as generous or as cheap as they feel, and it’s up to them to decide what’s fair.

To make things worse, the employer, who actually does have an obligation to be fair to his employees, is excused from the most basic labor law we have – the minimum wage.

Compensation for tipped workers has turned into the most difficult aspect of raising the minimum wage in Portland, a city with a booming restaurant sector. A majority on the City Council tried to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, but to placate local restaurateurs they planned to keep the minimum wage for tipped workers where it is, or $3.75 an hour.

Three-seventy-five? Ask your neighbor’s kid to shovel your driveway for $3.75 an hour. I hope you have a strong back.


The subminimum tipped wage is a rip-off, and giving anonymous diners so much power is creepy. Both practices deserve to come to an end.

This is when you’re supposed to tell me that I’m missing the point. The $3.75 is just a base wage, and tipped servers can be the highest-paid workers in a restaurant. If the council were to raise the minimum wage to $10.10, tipped workers would have to make at least that with their wages and tips combined. If they take in less, the employer still would have to make up the difference.

Those things might be true, but so is this: Servers in high-end restaurants may make much more than minimum wage, but I wonder how many make it every week, all year long. It’s one thing to have a big night in the summer when all the tables are full, but what about during a blizzard? You may not get much more than what’s in your paycheck.

And not every tipped employee works at a four-star restaurant. You need to bring in only $30 a month in tips to qualify for the subminimum wage, so there are people who are trying to get by on much less than the proposed $10.10-an-hour minimum.

If their paycheck and tips don’t add up, the onus is on the worker to make a complaint. Even when they prevail, only 17 percent ever collect back wages, according to a report by the National Employment Law Project.

But at least the server has a chance to file a complaint against an employer who underpays him. There’s no claim a server can make against a customer who’s not in the mood to play by the rules.


And some customers think that their ability to withhold payment entitles them to more than fast service. The No. 1 source of sexual harassment complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission come from women in the restaurant industry, especially in states like Maine that have a subminimum wage for tipped workers. The power relationship created by this optional compensation system is not healthy.

So why is it that we need tipping? It’s supposed to motivate servers to be more attentive, but if that was true, why limit it to them? Shouldn’t we be tipping firefighters, truck drivers or surgeons, since our lives depend on them paying attention? We don’t, because they would consider it an insult. Most people work hard in every line of work, and they don’t need little favors to motivate them.

Tipping is a habit that wealthy American tourists picked up in the 19th century from watching how European aristocrats dealt with their inferiors. A lot of people here considered it out of step with democratic values, and in 1904 the Anti-Tipping Society of America had 100,000 members.

But the custom took hold even after restaurants in Europe began including a service charge in their bills, and Europeans stopped tipping (making European tourists every American waitress’s nightmare).

It’s time to follow Europe’s lead again. Restaurants should charge enough to pay all of their employees a fair wage.


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