On St. Patrick’s Day 2012, while working as a bartender, I watched a 180-pound man brutally beat a middle-aged woman with the door of a taxi she was about to climb into.
The woman—a kind-hearted, gentle regular who came in almost every day with her husband and held his hand as they drank bottles of Blue Lite—stood over the sink at the serving station as another server dabbed at her bloody, meat-pulped face with a rag while I kept the other whiskey-hot customers from killing the man outside, who was being restrained by a furious bouncer. The man responsible attacked the woman because she refused to give him her cab; I had denied him service and made him leave, with difficulty, moments before because I sensed he might become violent. I was right.
Sometimes, I still think about the woman sobbing—the wet, choked sound of it around her broken nose—and wonder what I could have done differently so that the man wouldn’t have done what he did that night.
That was a rough bar. I used to refer to my tips from there as “danger pay.”
That was not the worst thing I saw in my more than ten years as a server (nor was it the last time I cleaned up human blood). I worked long hours in high-stress environments without breaks, worked sick because I could not afford to take an unpaid day off, and endured routine, institutionalized sexual harassment, and discrimination from clientele and management. During this time, I put myself through school and made a modest income which allowed me to have an apartment, food in the fridge, and a bookshelf full of good books.
What I never did was earn anywhere near $100,000 a year, as this recent National Post story claims is possible. The piece gives a grocery list of ills it blames on the modern culture of tipping, including claiming that tipping practices promote racism and servers are grossly overpaid for what they do. Ultimately, the article is an attack on lower-class, service-industry workers in defense of upper-class, white collar workers not wanting to part with a few dollars to tip; four of the ten arguments in the article are directly linked to disliking a perceived pressure to tip or the fear of over-tipping.
While these are legitimate concerns, the piece seems to be entirely disconnected from—and unconcerned about—the actual reality of being a worker relying on tips to bridge that tenuous gap from minimum wage to living wage. Case and point: Although the article claims to drop some “hard truths about tipping in Canada” (strangely, the source material is largely American) it never actually interviews a single person who works for tips from this country.
So, as a retired veteran server, I’d like to clear a few things up.
Claim 1: “Some tipped workers are staggeringly well paid”
The source material the writer uses for the article’s cited $100,000 a year claim is based entirely on an interview pulled from the job-finding website, Workopolis.com. The interviewee is obviously an extreme exception working in an exclusive venue, as she talks about serving Russell Crowe and Bono. The article also has a link to go look for hospitality jobs at Workopolis and was written as marketing content for the website by Peter Harris , who is the ex-editor of Workopolis. Not an impartial source, National Post.
The writer goes on to cite a paper via a the Journal of Foodservice Business Research which he says claims Canadian servers make $30 an hour on average when tips are accounted for. I actually couldn’t check this because the article is behind a paywall—you can read it for US$ 42.50 for 24 hours, if you have that kind of bling.
I heavily question the context of that number—there were certain times as a server I made $30 an hour, but servers don’t work a 40 hour, Monday to Friday, nine to five work week. Their schedules are subject to the whims of management, availability and season, as well as how busy the restaurant is on any given night, and servers have relatively low control over how much they work. A server might work 13 hours on a busy Friday double and make $300, or they might work three hours on a Tuesday lunch and get sent home early and make $25; the writer neatly chooses to ignore total income over a more sensational figure. Even if their average income evens out to $30 an hour, that doesn’t mean they are making that amount full time, which is why so many artists, writers and students support themselves this way.
Claim 2: “..back of house staff makes less than half as much” as a server.
This actually has a modicum of truth to it—back of house staff, ie, cooks—are woefully underpaid, but the writer immediately sets up a strawman to discredit the work servers do in favour of the work the back of house does, which is indeed hot, hard and stressful. As someone who has, however, had a customer reach up my kilt and squeeze my genitals to “see if I was a real Scottish lass” (ie, wearing underwear) while working at a Scottish-themed pub, I can vouch that servers—mostly female—have different but no less valid harsh working conditions than their—mostly male—back of house counter parts.
Servers also usually have a mandatory tip out—this means they give a portion of their sales, after taxes, to the back of the house—usually between two and five percent, which kitchen staff absolutely deserve. Is that enough to close the pay gap? No, but servers also aren’t responsible for paying cooks a living wage, the owners of the house are, and abolishing tipping won’t change that.
Moreover, if a server is tipping out three percent of their sales and a table tips them 10 percent on a $100 bill, that means they go home with $7 of that tip. If they get $5 on a $100 bill, they go home with $2. If they get no tip on $100 bill, it actually just cost them $3 to serve your ass.
Claim 3: Servers purposely don’t pay taxes on their tips
First of all, it’s actually really hard to know how much you’re making as a server because you’re getting cash, often cash-in-hand. It just goes into your wallet and then you buy stuff with it—no one ever sits down and figures out exactly how much they made in a year. Secondly, I feel like maybe we should be more concerned with the $14 billion a year in estimated lost tax revenue from wealthy Canadians hiding their money than about whether Jenni at IHOP claimed all her pancake tip money.
Claim 4: It promotes discrimination
The article claims that, among other things, tipping promotes discrimination, as a study found that “black servers were generally tipped less than white servers—even when they were being tipped by black clientele.” That’s a cart-before-the-horse problem and why does it surprise anyone? The cited study is American, and racial income inequality is a problem across the board. As I’ve talked about before, serving is a white, hetronormative cluster fuck; that people are racist, sexist, queerphobic douchehats has nothing at all to do with tipping and everything to with the fact that, by and large, people are horrible. Serving is also one of the few occupations where ladies earn more than men, precisely because the gender war is real and men tip for tits.
None of these things are right or fair, but they have nothing to do with servers and everything to do with the huge social issues embedded in our culture. Getting rid of tipping—or just not tipping your server—is in no way going to correct these problems and to argue they are related is to not see the forest for the trees. You could, arguably, add a gratuity right into the bill, as they do in France, thereby eliminating the opportunity for discrimination on both ends of the spectrum—servers getting skimped and servers giving preferential treatment to customers they feel will tip them better than others—but if your beef is that you don’t want to pay for a tip at all that might not satisfy you either, as that removes your ability to choose to do so or not.
Claim 5: “There is almost nothing rational about tip compensation”
Totally correct: There isn’t anything rational about it. Tipping is a completely social custom—one that actually has deeply racist roots. What it does now, however, is create is moderately well paid positions with flexible schedules for workers—especially women, who make up a large percentage of the serving work force—for which little education is required. For restaurants to pay servers a similar wage, they would have to guarantee hours and pay them a much higher rate than they do, which customers would invariably see reflected in the cost of dining; you’d still pay the same amount or possibly higher, but you wouldn’t see if directly coming out of your wallet in the same way. You can hate the player, you can hate the game, but you’re always going to pay to play.
Claim 6: Servers make too much on top of the minimum wage
Astoundingly, the writer points out that while American servers may make as little as $2 an hour, “server wages are particularly high in Canada because tips are often piled on top of high minimum wages.” He neatly fails to note two important facts. Firstly, in some provinces, such as Quebec and Ontario, servers actually work for less than minimum wage, a fact I assume he must be aware of as his source material clearly indicates this (he also misquotes the Quebec server minimum as $9.45 a hour; it went up to $9.80 in May 2018).
Secondly in what universe is $9.45 a “high minimum wage?” As anti-poverty groups have noted, a minimum wages is not the same thing as living wage. Alberta has Canada’s highest minimum wage at $15 an hour; a living wage for Calgary is calculated at $17.70 an hour.
Claim 7: Tipping amounts don’t really change based on good service
That’s actually true—but that’s not your server’s fault. People have a hard time communicating their needs with their server, but that’s what they’re there for. Is your food wrong? Tell them. It should be corrected promptly and with an apology. Coffee cold? Ask for a new cup. Server forget to bring ketchup? Ask for frickin’ ketchup. Moreover, if your service was bad—slow, rude or otherwise shitty— don’t tip. As someone who was a server, nothing pisses me off like having to ask for cutlery, finding myself sat at a filthy table, or watching my server smack her gum and text on the phone while my glass sits empty. And that does totally happen and I reflect that in the bill because that’s what tipping is supposed to be for.
Servers: If you suck at your job, you don’t deserve to be tipped. Duh.
Unsure how to tip? If your server did their bare bones basic job satisfactorily, 10 percent. If they did a great job and improved your experience—made you laugh, brightened your night, went out of their way to be helpful—15 to 20 percent. Fine dining service should start at a base 15 to 20 percent because it involves a lot more training, skill, knowledge and time on your server’s part.
Pro tip: If you’re extra-happy with your service and want to communicate that in a classy way, a penny left face up on the bill in addition to the gratuity is an old-school sign of saying thanks, you did great. Do this on a date. Seriously. It’s sexy.=