By Helen Bezuneh,
Special to the AFRO

It’s a situation we’re all familiar with. You’re at a business where you didn’t receive service that’s up to your standards. When the bill arrives, you calculate a low tip, seeing as the service, in your opinion, was quite poor. You do this, perhaps, because you have been taught that tipping is optional and should correlate with how good the service was. But national etiquette expert Diane Gottsman, this idea completely misinterprets the purpose of tipping.

[A popular misconception is] that if you don’t want to tip, you don’t have to tip,” said Gottsman, founder of The Protocol School of Texas. “Gratuity– tipping, in this case– is part of the service. Those who are working for gratuity are oftentimes taking less hourly wage, and tipping is how they offset the costs, that’s part of their livelihood. So we should consider tipping, and tipping generously when appropriate.”

Since the minimum wage for tipped workers is so low, those workers rely on tips to make a living. So, when you tip, you’re not simply providing workers with a treat for doing a good job- you’re paying for their sustenance.

“While some tipped workers do make good money, particularly in high-volume bars and fine dining restaurants, most do not,” said Restaurant Workers United, a union for restaurant, bar, and cafe workers, in a written statement. “Tips are a very unreliable source of income; no one should have to worry about paying for essentials because they got stiffed on a few tables.”

Tipped airport service workers at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, for example, struggle to make ends meet, said Jaime Contreras, executive vice president of 32BJ Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The minimum wage for tipped employees in Washington, D.C. recently rose from $6.00 per hour to $8.00.

32BJ, a local branch of the union that represents more than 175,000 members in ten northeastern states, represents some of the airport workers, who work to sustain the travel industry as wheelchair attendants, baggage handlers and more.

“Without a tipped wage, workers pretty much rely on the generosity of customers who may not even know how little tipped workers make, or people don’t even know they have to tip,” said Contreras. “If you’re a wheelchair attendant at the airport and you help people to and from their gate, who may be from places where tipping is not a cultural thing, that creates a problem. And that’s why we have pushed for tipped wheelchair workers at airports to get a higher wage.”

Tadesse Tadege, a tipped worker in guest services at D.C.’s Marriot Marquis, is a member of Unite Here Local 25, a union that represents over 7,500 hotel, restaurant and casino workers in the D.C. metro region, for similar troubling reasons. Working at the hotel for eight years, he has helped guests check in, helped them with their luggage and directions and more. The gap between the incomes for tipped and non-tipped employees at the hotel is wide, Tadege said. “They get $25 and we get $12.99.”

“Eight years ago when I was hired, the tipping was okay,” he said. “But now it’s going down. [Back then] our major income was calling taxis , so people gave you two, three dollars here and there. Now, a lot of people use rideshare apps like Uber or Lyft. So they don’t need our help. The other thing is, with the digital age, a lot of people want to give you something, but they don’t even have cash. Because of these reasons, we are affected.”

Tips cover most of his and his coworkers’ expenses, said Tadege. With a lack of tips, most work multiple jobs to fill the gap in their income.

Joining Local 25 has had a major impact on these conditions, he said.

“I didn’t know Local 25 before, but now I see the benefit,” he said. “They are really fighting for us everyday. Everyday they come and check with us if there is any problem. We even got paid for missing payments because of them. Now, I tell people to join unions. They are on our side.”

Local 25 is looking towards improving members’ hourly rate, said Emebet Samuel Kassa, Internal Organizing Director of the union. With workers not making sufficient money and guests not tipping, Local 25 strongly believes that management should make up the difference, said Kassa.

No matter the quality of service, you should always tip 15 to 20 percent, said Gottsman.

“I always like to air on the side of 20,” she said, “but i want to be fair and respectful for those who might have more of a struggle because some people are still struggling with inflation and trying to find jobs after the pandemic.”

In a survey conducted several years ago by William Michael Lynn, a tipping expert who himself paid his way through college by waiting tables and bartending, only 70 percent of people gave an answer in the 15 to 20 percent range when asked how much they think is customary to tip.

Though people need to improve their tipping habits, tipping is not always necessary in all contexts, said Gottsman. 

“It’s discretionary,” she said. “If you’re at a counter, let’s say at a coffee shop, and they hand you a cup of coffee and it’s a six second exchange, it’s much like a tip jar. A tip jar is discretionary,” she added.

It’s also unacceptable to tip in some situations, she said. Many grocery stores, for example, don’t allow curbside workers to accept a tip since they get paid an hourly wage.

“Most of the time tipping is acceptable, but when in doubt, you ask,” noted Gottsman.

While tipping may not be obligatory at cafes and the like, gratuity screens tend to make customers feel pressured to tip, said Gottsman. 

“We feel compelled to leave that tip especially when [the displayed tip range] starts out high, so people feel pressure to leave a tip when in fact they wouldn’t have left a tip at all, or they would have left a couple of quarters in the change jar,” she said. “It’s important to know that you can feel comfortable touching the ‘no tip’ button [for] a service that was very quick. They aren’t working for gratuity, it’s…an hourly worker.”

To target the problematic impacts on workers, some restaurants have made the radical choice to entirely eliminate tipping. In 2015, Danny Meyer decided to do so for his restaurants, raising menu prices to adequately pay his workers instead. He called the model “hospitality included.” 

Meyer, however, ended his no-tipping policy in 2020, citing the unpredictable future of the precarious restaurant economy.

Getting rid of tipping is harder than most would think, said Lynn.

“The restaurants that have eliminated tipping have had to do one of two things: either replace tipping with automatic service charges, which by the way nobody likes…or they can increase menu prices and they’ll pay their staff higher wages. But to do that, they’ve gotta increase menu prices. People actually don’t like those higher menu prices either.”

Unions nationwide will persist in their advocacy for workers grappling with detrimental tipping systems. “We generally aren’t looking to do away with tipping right now,” said Restaurant Workers United, “but what we do want is higher wages, better benefits, and more reliable scheduling to make restaurant work a career that we can rely on. The larger cultural conversation about tipping isn’t going to change fundamentally unless we have the power as workers to demand the changes that we want to see in our industry, and that means we have to organize first.”