Clarence Fanto: Government must tip better



When the author of this column and the editor of these opinion pages dine out periodically, we add about 20 percent to the bill for the waitpeople who invariably take good care of us at our favored Lenox and Pittsfield food emporiums.

The intent here is not to demonstrate any unusual generosity -- we would hope that the long-prevailing 15 percent standard gratuity has increased.

It’s to point out that along with President Obama’s commendable push for a long-overdue increase in the federal minimum wage ("Give America a raise"), the "tip wage" is equally deserving.


In Massachusetts, the minimum for tipped workers is set by state law at $2.63 per hour, compared to $8 for others. Both levels have been unchanged since Jan. 1, 2008. If a tipped employee does not receive $8 per hour worked, the employer must make up the difference.

Although our state Senate voted 32-7 last November to raise the Massachusetts minimum wage from $8 an hour to $11 an hour in steps over the next three years, the House has yet to act. The Senate’s proposal would increase the minimum "tip wage" to $5.50 an hour by mid-2016.

If the bill dies in the House, there will be a ballot question this November seeking a $10.50 hourly minimum starting in January 2016, with tipped employees getting 60 percent of that figure. Those increases would benefit nearly 500,000 workers statewide.

State Sen. Mark Montigny, D-New Bedford, has stated that a higher minimum wage would help narrow the huge chasm between the wealthy and the poor.

"Tens of thousands of people are working full time and living below the poverty level," he said. "It is inexcusable."

Opponents, including the ubiquitous Jon Hurst, who heads the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, contend that the proposal is an over-reach, since Massachusetts would end up with the highest minimum of any state in the nation.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, folks -- remember how we were the nation’s leader in affordable health care for all.

By now, if they’re still reading this, my friends on the right are tearing their hair out, strenuously arguing that thanks to tips, restaurant servers already do well. At pizza joints, there’s the tip jar. At high-end and some mid-level eateries, a mandatory 18 percent tip is added to the check for large groups.

But most wait staffers depend on the whims of their customers. Sadly, some diners leave shamefully low gratuities; a few even depart by stiffing their servers.

"Tip" is said to be an acronym of "To Insure Promptness," "To Insure Performance" or "To Improve Performance" -- "tips" means "To Insure Prompt Service" or "To Insure Proper Service." In 1895, the New York Tribune traced the term back a century or two to English taverns that had boxes for coins emblazoned with the slogan "To Insure Promptness." Logic would dictate that such tips should be paid up front.

Professional etymologists beg to differ, claiming that the word goes back to the 1500s from the verb tip, "to give, hand, pass" or "to tap," perhaps based on a Low German word "tippen." Nowadays, the German word is "trinkgeld," meaning "drink money."

Whatever. Our Congress passed the "tip wage" nearly a half-century ago, originally set at 50 percent of the overall federal minimum. But in 1996, bowing to pressure from the restaurant industry, that rule was discontinued in favor of the current federal tip minimum, $2.13 an hour (with restaurant owners topping it off, if necessary, to the $7.25 general minimum).

While 19 states use those federal standards, 24 offer more and seven enlightened ones require waiters’ base pay to equal the state minimum -- currently $9.32 an hour in Washington, the nation’s highest.

Advocates in Congress point out that many waitpeople live below the poverty line and that the minimum tip wage has been the same since 1991. Because of inflation, that year’s $2.13 is now worth $1.24.


The arguments from the National Restaurant Association (the other NRA) are all-too-familiar: Raise the tip wage and either jobs will be lost or the increase will be passed along to patrons.

It’s the same old song. True, in Berkshire County’s highest-end restaurants, the waitpeople can do well, at least on weekends, holidays and through the summer. This time of year -- not so much. At hundreds of simpler eateries, it’s a bare-subsistence job.

Nationally, according to a University of California at Berkeley study, there are 3.3 million tipped workers, including two million waitpeople, and their median hourly earnings total $9.22.

But the National Restaurant Association claims $16 per hour as the median for less experienced waiters, and $22 for experienced, based on what employers told the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Berkeley figures come from the same bureau’s survey of households. Go figure.

If federal and state minimums are not raised, here are two other potential solutions: All restaurants could add a mandatory 15 to 20 percent service charge to the bill. This is customary in Europe.

Or, as in Japan, adopt a no-tip policy and add the service charge to the price of menu items. One way or another, this should be the year that the minimum for all employees, including restaurant workers, is raised to civilized levels. That way, "tips" could be defined as "to insure personal survival."

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