In the United States, it’s a common custom within the service and hospitality industry to tip waged workers. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers in the US is $2.13, compared to the main federal minimum wage which is $7.25, and has remained just short of two dollars for many decades.

People have been critical of the exploitative practice of tipping for years. The critiques mostly surround corporations utilization of tipping to legally get away with paying their workers an unlivable wageEssentially, customers are responsible for paying restaurant worker’s wages through tips.

And although tipping is optional, many Americans view not tipping service workers as rude or unethical due to their low wages. The other spectrum of people’s critiques simply highlights how grossly low and unethical paying individuals $2.13 is.

Restaurant workers are more likely to live below the poverty line than the general population, and that likelihood increases depending on things like race and gender. Activists have been trying to raise the minimum wage for hourly workers for decades. The Raise the Wage Act, which would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, would additionally raise the minimum wage for tipped workers for the first time in almost three decades.

American capitalism makes our economy inherently unethical and predatory.

The stagnation of wages for tipped workers is itself abhorrent and a clear illustration of how predatory capitalism is on lower-income and working-class people. Workers’ wages being reliant upon (optional) tips from customers, rather than a guaranteed right from million or billion-dollar corporations is unethical. However, upon an even deeper examination into the custom of tipping in the US, its history is more corrupt than most know. 

Tipping actually originated in “medieval times as a master-serf custom wherein a servant would receive extra money for having performed superbly well,” Rachel E. Greenspan explains in an article for TIME. In the mid-1800s, wealthy Americans discovered the concept of tipping after travels to Europe and brought the custom to the states in order to seem dignified and well-traveled. 

The custom stuck in the Post Reconstruction Era, after slavery “ended,” as a way to opt-out of paying Black people who were now looking for work. Restaurants would pay Black workers little to nothing and forced them to rely on (optional) tips from white clientele, which “entrenched a unique and often racialized class structure in service jobs, in which [Black] workers must please both customer and employer to earn anything at all,” says Dr William J. Barber II in an article for Politico. Thus, legally continuing the practice of slavery but in a re-imagined way.

The custom was nationally unpopular for a while and only a custom done in the South because many people felt forcing customers to tip was condescending and classist. People thought it cruel to suggest poor people should give an additional amount of money on top of their bill. As a result, some states even made laws against the practice.

Additionally, tipping was thought to be a concept reserved only for Black workers, whereas white workers deserved to be fairly paid for their work. However, as Black people began moving north for economic opportunity and to escape segregationist laws, the custom of tipping followed, becoming the national standard within the US’s restaurant industry.

It’s imperative to know the history behind malpractices deemed as “normal.”

Fast forward to today, conversations (or arguments) surrounding the ethics of tipping at American restaurants occur often on social media between wait staff and restaurant workers and restaurant-goers. I’ve always found these discussions to be futile because the ethics of greedy corporations are never questioned, which in turn produces no real, systemic change for waged workers.

Rev. Dr William J. Barber II further states in his article, “We may live in a very different society from 150 years ago, but the subminimum tipped wage still exacerbates the inequalities passed down from that time.”

American capitalism makes our economy inherently unethical and predatory. So, rather than people regularly arguing amongst each other on whether working-class people are responsible for paying the wages of other working-class people, we should be collectively challenging our government to pay us livable wages.

Although the history of tipping in America is racist, raising the federal minimum wage benefits all working-class people regardless of race. Thankfully, an organization of restaurant industry leaders called Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards in Employment (RAISE) was founded in 2019 to champion living wages, basic benefits, and fair promotion policies for waged workers in the restaurant industry.

In addition, wages for hourly workers reliant on tips are being raised in isolated policies across the states like in Michigan or Washington DC. However, there obviously needs to be a national standard that correlates with the cost of living in America.

With racism being examined so closely this year, it’s imperative to know the history behind malpractices deemed as “normal.” And instead, challenge or dismantle those norms to begin building an economy that equally serves all.

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Ebony Purks

By Ebony Purks

Editorial Fellow