There’s an unpalatable restaurant story making the rounds this week, frequently under a headline like: “Waitress fired after generous $2,200 tip turns sour.” On the face of it, it’s an easy narrative of a good deed gone wrong. But under the surface, it exposes everything that’s terrible about restaurant tipping.
This fairy tale, including the heart-warming finale in which the gallant diners started a crowdfunding page for the now out-of-work server, omits or ignores the true awfulness of what happened.
The incident occurred in early December when a group of more than 30 diners contributed to a $4,400 tip to be split between their two servers at the Oven and Tap in Bentonville, Arkansas. But then one of the servers, Ryan Brandt, told the diners that her manager said the tip had to be shared with all staff, with only 20 percent going to her. Then she was fired. (The restaurant issued a statement saying it wouldn’t disclose the reason she was let go.) So we’ve got an easy-to-hate villainous restaurant manager, a victim the audience can identify with — she has student loans to pay off! — and a whole squadron of heroes. All of which obscures what’s actually wrong with this story.
Yes, it’s gross that the manager insisted on dividing the tip after the organizer of the meal outing said he had contacted the restaurant in advance to confirm that servers do not share tips so all the money would go to the server he'd requested, Brandt, who'd waited on him previously. (The restaurant denied to local news outlet WKNA that he had called in advance.) And it’s unconscionable if the restaurant fired her for talking to the customer about the tip, as she claims. But this fairy tale, including the heart-warming finale in which the gallant diners started a crowdfunding page for the now out-of-work server, omits or ignores the true awfulness of what happened.
To start with, the minimum wage for tipped workers in Arkansas is $2.63 per hour, compared to the regular minimum wage of $11 per hour. Under the tip credit provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, when workers don’t make enough in tips to equal the minimum hourly wage ($7.25 federal, $11 for Arkansas), the employer is expected to pay the remainder. However, labor laws are only as good as enforcement, and the tip credit system is full of holes. One review by the Department of Labor from 2010 to 2012 estimated that 84 percent of restaurants had labor violations, including when it came to tipping.
When sufficient tips are given out to boost wages above the minimum hourly rate, how those tips get divvied up lacks transparency and any guarantee of equity. There is no standardized way of splitting tips, and disclosure of tipping policies has not yet become part of the expected information a restaurant provides its customers.
While it can seem wrong that the Arkansas server had an intended tip snatched away, restaurant hosts, bartenders and bussers who don’t get handed cash directly might themselves working below minimum wage and relying on shared tips from their co-workers.
The general public often has no idea how tips are divided, nor their history. Tipping is a practice America borrowed from Europe after the Civil War. Restaurant and railroad porter work were some of the few employment opportunities for formerly enslaved people. Instead of wages, tipping enabled employers to operate with cheap or free labor with the expectation that customers would compensate workers through voluntary monetary gifts.
In time, it became expected of diners to help pay the wage of servers by adding as much as 20 percent on to the bill. This social expectation was codified into law by the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act and the tip credit amendment of 1996. Which is bananas.
As is the common belief that a tip is a reward for good service. In fact, most of us have a standard amount that we tip when we eat out regardless of the quality of the wait staff, and restaurants are counting on that fact. Yet the idea that this payment represents a reward or punishment for servers makes it a power trip for many diners. The head of the dining party was recorded giving the money to Brandt with his arms around her as she cried, and was then posted on Instagram with a score that sounds like it comes from a music library marked “inspiring sunsets.”
The practice also enables all manner of endemic problems — sexual harassment, racial bias, income disparity. As Cornell University’s tipping expert Dr. Michael Lynn has found, both Black and white diners tip Black servers less. And cooks are chronically underpaid for their work, often making only half of what servers take home at fancy restaurants. And imagine how your relationship with a car salesperson would change if you tipped on the price of a car and what they might feel impelled to let you get away with because you get to decide how much they earn.
I’m a huge proponent of restaurants that operate without tips, but it’s not realistic to expect the industry at large to make that transition any time soon — though I’m encouraged by many recent conversation with restaurateurs who are revising how they divide tips in order to narrow the pay disparity between the dining room and the kitchen.
However, we can and should immediately eliminate the subminimum wage. If tipping is truly a fair and voluntary practice, it can continue to exist on its own as a choice made by employers, employees and consumers. Then tips can genuinely become what the propaganda tells us they are: a reward for outstanding service.