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Raise Employees' Wages, Not Their Expectations Of A Tip

Cody Fenwick: "Servers and other tipped staff live off the avails of a lopsided exchange." Pictured: An envelope that Marriott will be placing in 160,000 hotel rooms in the U.S. and Canada beginning this week to encourage guests to leave a tip for the person who cleans the room. The envelopes bear the name of the room attendant. Marriott is launching the project with Maria Shriver, founder of A Woman’s Nation, an organization that works on issues empowering women. (A Woman’s Nation/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Cody Fenwick: "Servers and other tipped staff live off the avails of a lopsided exchange." Pictured: An envelope that Marriott will be placing in 160,000 hotel rooms in the U.S. and Canada beginning this week to encourage guests to leave a tip for the person who cleans the room. The envelopes bear the name of the room attendant. Marriott is launching the project with Maria Shriver, founder of A Woman’s Nation, an organization that works on issues empowering women. (A Woman’s Nation/AP)

Maria Shriver and the Marriott hotel chain have joined forces in a campaign they’re calling “The Envelope Please.” Mariott hotels will now include envelopes in the guests’ rooms specifically for tipping the housekeeping staff.

I welcome any well-meaning attempt to draw attention to workers who don’t get their due, especially if it has their livelihoods in mind. But when Shriver argues that travelers need to know that tipping housekeepers is customary, she fails to persuade me. By definition, ‘customary’ suggests that mass education campaigns should be unnecessary. If the majority of people don’t tip their hotel housekeepers, it’s not a custom.

An increase in the practice of tipping will almost certainly discourage hotel owners from raising wages. And widening the class of jobs that are reliant on tips is almost certainly a step in the wrong direction.

The bigger issue is the onus this puts on hotel guests to supplement the incomes of hotel employees. Feel free to tip your housekeeper if you so choose, but this is the mass education campaign I’d like to read: An increase in the practice of tipping will almost certainly discourage hotel owners from raising wages. And widening the class of jobs that are reliant on tips is almost certainly a step in the wrong direction.

Servers and other tipped staff live off the avails of a lopsided exchange. Unlike a standard economic transaction in which negotiation and market forces may determine a price, the size of a gratuity is determined solely by the whim of the customer. Social mores are ill-suited to enforce fair treatment. The whole practice implies that these workers should be grateful to be paid at all.

Since there’s no settled view on the appropriate amount to tip in any circumstance, this inevitably results in unpredictable incomes for tipped staff. Many servers, for instance, will say that a standard gratuity is 20 percent, but I know many people who think that this amount is only for exceptional service. Those people are what servers call “bad tippers.”

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The lack of consensus extends far beyond a dinner out. Uber, a mobile-based ride-sharing service, explicitly tells its customers that tipping is not expected, but many riders find this difficult to believe. Type “Should I tip my…” into Google and you’ll be presented with options from “cable guy” to “dog groomer.” Who gets to decide which jobs get tipped and which get stiffed?

What of the argument that tipping rewards excellent and congenial service? I’d rather see all workers recognized and promoted for talent and good work. That certain classes of workers should be paid below-subsistence wages and have to rely on tips to make up the difference underscores the toxic haves-versus-have-nots divide in American culture.

That certain classes of workers should be paid below-subsistence wages and have to rely on tips to make up the difference underscores the toxic haves-versus-have-nots divide in American culture.

Besides, tipping doesn’t encourage fabulous service. Studies have shown that seemingly insignificant changes in server behavior or appearance result in substantially larger tips. It has also been shown that many customers give larger tips to white servers more than they do black servers.

Shifting the culture is the only solution, daunting as that may be. But this view is gaining popularity, and it’s been endorsed by respected economists. The emergence of new services like Uber that boast a hassle- and tip-free payment method, suggest that tipping might already be on its way out.

Another step forward, short of an all-out ban on tipping, would be repealing the exemption for minimum wage laws for tipped services. Maybe then we could get closer to giving the individuals who do these jobs the respect – and livelihoods – they deserve.


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Cody Fenwick Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Cody Fenwick is a writer and graduate student. He blogs on philosophical ethics at The Lives of Animals and contributes to The Life You Can Save blog.

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