OPINION: A lower wage for tipped workers perpetuates inequalities

Raising the minimum wage has been a frequent topic of discussion the last few years, but few mention how much the minimum wage of tipped workers lags behind. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, but the minimum wage for servers and hospitality workers is only $2.13. In Illinois, our minimum wage is $11 (until it is raised in 2022) and the tipped wage is $6.60.


The Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to make up the difference when workers don’t make minimum wage with their tips added to the server wage. However, the onus often falls on workers to get their employers to make up the difference according to the Center for American Progress. It’s very difficult to stand up to your employer, especially on the topic of pay. Wage theft is the largest form of theft according to the Economic Policy Institute. Over twice as much is lost in wage theft than robberies, totalling $933 million in 2012. The same study said five out of six restaurants had committed some form of wage theft — be it off the clock work, lack of overtime pay or stolen tips.


By forcing the majority of workers’ income to rely on tips, they are held hostage to the whims of customers. According to the Economic Policy Institute, two-thirds of tipped workers are women. With the ability to pay the bills in the hands of the customers, tipped workers are forced to put up with misogyny, racism and other forms of bigotry. Workers are also expected to form emotional connections with customers for better tips, which puts undue emotional labor on them — particularly women. 


Tipped workers are expected to listen to the stories of chatty customers and show sympathy towards them, forming an artificial bond with them similar to a parasocial relationship. There is also rampant sexual harassment of female workers that often goes unchecked by management. That required unpaid emotional labor also shows how undervalued ‘feminine’ characteristics are in the workforce and connects to the concept of pink-collar jobs and the gendered division of labor. 


Tipping in the United States also has origins in racism and labor exploitation. According to the Center for American Progress, tipping started in the U.S. after emancipation when white employers wanted to avoid paying freed African Americans. This also left their livelihood in the hands of racist customers. This history adds more reason to leave the practice of mandatory tipping behind.


Many European countries like Switzerland don’t require tips and pay their workers the full value of their wages. I don’t see why the U.S. should be any different. Some argue that switching to a blanket minimum wage will result in less income for servers, but tipping doesn’t have to be done away with completely. Many U.S. customers operate under the assumption that tips should correlate with quality of service, however not automatically giving a 15 to 20 percent tip can harm the worker’s income. By giving tipped workers the regular minimum wage, but still allowing them to collect tips, they will be able to exercise more agency when being mistreated by customers. 


Labor exploitation has a long history in America and customers shouldn’t be expected to subsidize the wages of workers. Of course, people should still tip their servers and delivery drivers and if you can’t afford to tip you probably shouldn’t be going out to eat at a restaurant anyway. We need consumers to rally behind service workers to leave this practice behind and get people the wages they deserve.


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