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John Batchelor

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Will AG Ferguson’s fight with the Trump admin kill tipping?

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

I’ve gotten into so many fights with people about tipping.

I’ve nearly ended friendships after learning someone doesn’t tip at all on a regular basis, I’ve gotten into deep discussions about what services deserve tips and which don’t.

It’s a topic people get strangely passionate about. Everyone is weird about money, but requiring customers to assign this specific monetary value to the service they’ve received is crazy awkward the more you think about it.

The thing is waiters and waitresses are the 6th biggest occupation sector in the country, and their livelihood depends largely on tips. For me, when and how much to tip is a conjectural debate I get into with friends. For 2.5 million workers, that’s seven percent of the workforce, the stakes are way higher.

Now, a form of that debate is manifesting itself in Washington D.C.

The Department of Labor is considering rescinding an Obama-era rule that prevents restaurants from having any say in how waiters and waitresses divide their tips. The idea is it could lead to a more equitable distribution of tips between kitchen staff and waitstaff, but labor activists argue management could take a cut of the tips themselves leaving servers with less. Bloomberg reports even the Labor Department’s own analysis suggested this could cost waitstaff billions, but they elected not to release this information to the public.

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and several other state Attorneys General are gearing up to fight this. They argue in a letter they sent to the Department of Labor that changing this policy would result in less money for workers and it could result in customers getting mislead about where their tips are going.

I’m afraid if this rule gets passed, it could mean the end of tipping, at least for me.

The Death of Tipping

In the United States, we take tipping as a given. It’s just how the system works.

That isn’t true in other parts of the world. In Europe, tipping isn’t really expected, and if people do tip, the amount is smaller. Sure, European countries might have a reputation for worse service, but obviously not so bad people are travelling to Europe and then not eating any of the food.

Even in Seattle’s own Capitol Hill neighborhood, there are businesses leaving the practice behind. Optimism Brewing doesn’t accept tips. Instead they pay bartenders $20 an hour on top of paid time off and health benefits.

Tipping isn’t the only way to do things, and if the Trump administration ultimately decides to change the rules so preventing me from knowing where my tips are going, I’d consider stopping the practice altogether.

Of course, my intention wouldn’t be to hurt workers. If the rule is changed, my plan would be to only patronize businesses that either a) have gotten rid of tips and instead pay all their workers a living wage or b) transparently explain how tips are divided among employees.

Would this change anything? It seems unlikely, unless a lot of people joined me. Would it severely limit my dining options? I’m a millennial, it’s not like I’m dining at Canlis every weekend. My dining options are already limited.

It’s possible this rule could pass and restaurants would be super cool about it. They might put out signs explaining in explicit detail how the new rules allow them to more equitably disperse tips among their staff and they could all raise base wages to make sure servers don’t lose anything. But I’m not holding my breath.

Here’s the thing, the practice of tipping isn’t all that fair in the first place. Servers benefit, but kitchen staff often don’t. The practice is discriminatory; white waitstaff earn more in tips than waitstaff of color. There’s a perfectly reasonable case to be made against tipping, and if the Trump administration was trying to get rid of this system in order to replace it with a more equitable one, they might be able to get me on board.

Instead, they’re advocating for the clunky, imprecise measure of simply rescinding an old rule, and if Bloomberg is to be believed, even they know it would hurt workers.

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