Christmas may come early for Ontario servers. A bill that bans management from taking a cut of their employees' tips is set to become law. On the surface, it seems like a good idea. Why should money-grubbing management get a portion of the tips that waitstaff and cooks earn from back-breaking work?
Think a little harder and it's unclear if this piece of legislation would really be a server's saviour. I'm skeptical that most small business owners who give up their lives and financial stability to open a restaurant are all greedy bastards. Rather, server friends tell me transparency is the big issue: managers sometimes dip into the tip pool without their knowledge. But all these issues take a back seat to the major problem with this legislation: tipping is a flawed practice that restaurants should just abandon altogether.
Other parts of the world have already seen the light. In many European countries, such as France, Switzerland and Belgium, service charges are included on bills and servers simply make a higher hourly rate. Other restaurants simply raise their menu prices. In mainland China and Japan, leaving extra money may be viewed as an insult. Though a handful of high-profile U.S. restaurants, and one in Toronto, have recently gone tipless, further adoption would require a big mentality shift from Canadians.
Tips embody the interplay of individualism, hard work and success that so many North Americans value. As a former waitress, I know the rush of counting tips at the end of the night. Diners, for their part, like the illusion of power. You may be a lowly paper pusher by day, but by night you can prize or punish someone for how well they wrote down your order. The problem is, none of the psychological attachments we have to tips are based in reality.
A server's ability barely correlates to how much they make. Michael Lynn, a Cornell University professor who has devoted his life to researching gratuities, found that "service ratings explained an average of less than two percent of the variation in a restaurant's tip percentages." In short, we don't actually give higher tips to better waitstaff. Many of us pay the same amount in any situation, but Lynn has also found diners throw down money based on superficial factors, such as tone of voice or body language.
As a result, tipping is rife with discrimination. Research shows that if you're a black server, even if you balance plates on your head and memorize 40 orders, you'll make less than your white colleagues. Slender, large-breasted, blonde women earn the most money, but they likely pay a price, since 80 per cent of female servers say they are sexually harassed, according to a study from Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.
In addition to the prejudice, tipping does not make economic sense for servers. Yes, there are restaurant jobs so lucrative that a weekend shift will cover a year's tuition, but most in the biz are not that lucky. Since a server's wages depend on the number of diners served, salaries are not very stable and, apart from jobs at top restaurants, not very high. Fifteen per cent of American servers live in poverty, compared to seven per cent of all workers, according to a study published by the Economic Policy Institute. In both Canada and the U.S., waiters and waitresses are paid a lower minimum wage -- $9.80/hour in Ontario -- topped up by tips that are often pooled with kitchen and support staff. Cooks have it even worse; many work more than 12 hours per day for less than minimum wage, according to The Globe and Mail. By removing the tip system, wages would become steady and more evenly distributed. And no gratuities can be good for business, too. One Pittsburgh establishment, Bar Marco, tripled profits after it offered employees a set salary, healthcare and shares in the business in lieu of tips.
While I'm glad the government wants to fix restaurant industry problems, this bill focuses on the wrong issue. If politicians really care about servers, they should outlaw tips in Canadian restaurants rather than continue to work within a broken system.
*This piece originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen