09/13/2013 10:29 am ET Updated Nov 13, 2013

The Tipping (Jar) Point


It used to be that the only service providers who could expect a tip were cab drivers, bellmen, skycaps, waiters, bartenders and the person who cut your hair -- as long as he or she wasn't the owner of the place, then no tip was required. Employers underpaid these employees, fully expecting that the workers would make up the difference in gratuities. In turn, these folks who "worked for tips" bent over backwards to make sure they were worthy of those extra payments. Back then, tipping felt like you were Sinatra slipping a C-note into the slim fingers of a lovely coat check girl, not a guilt-based obligation.

Today, there's no romanticizing it: Tipping is all about the tip jar -- that container now sitting by the register at almost every service establishment in America. "Jar," usually being an overstatement. Once in a while they're creatively designed, but more typically they're crudely made from old Costco-sized, clear, plastic jugs or Styrofoam cups with, "College Fund," or "Support Counter Intelligence," scrawled on them. Invariably, there are a few "starter bucks" tossed in to make it look like others before you have already done their part.

If it sounds like I am bitter or begrudge the People of the Jar, nothing could be further from the truth. I understand completely. People are just trying to make a living, and these days that's harder than ever. While my working life in numerous service jobs ended well before the tip jar ubiquity began (although I did recently find an old picture of myself behind the counter of a bakery, mere inches from a tip jar), I nonetheless want to support my brothers and sisters who are still in the game. I'm always eager to reward effort and good service. Yet somehow, the rise of the tip jar is a different animal to me. No one is forcing me to tip, and I've never heard anyone complain when I don't drop a buck into the waiting cup. It's just there... sitting right where you take out your wallet... right where you receive your change... right where the person who just helped you can plainly see the extra money you still currently possess. But no pressure.

By my shaky memory, the first pop culture mention of the tip jar was in a Seinfeld episode. George is buying a calzone at a pizza parlor and drops a bill into the jar, only to have the counterman turn away and miss George's act of largesse. George decides to secretly retrieve the dollar, in order to redeposit it in the jar when the counterman is looking. Of course, George is caught during the act of removing the money, accused of trying to steal and chased off with no calzone.

While the Seinfeld scenario is funny, it also has the added benefit of underscoring a truth -- that the better angels who prompt us to tip are no match for the devil inside of us who needs for that tip to not just be seen, but to be acknowledged, and properly credited to us. We see the tip jar as a litmus test of our own goodness. A generosity meter. And who doesn't want to be seen as good and generous?

On the other hand, are we now tipping people for simply doing the most basic parts of their jobs? Pick up your take-out food and you come up against the other recently-grown limb of the tipping tree: the credit card receipt, "Tip," line. As we've all come to learn, the signature line isn't the only item left blank on that piece of paper. These days your take-out "Total" is actually a "Subtotal." Beneath this sum is a blank line with a prompt to let you know that this is where a tip is expected. Of course, if you don't tip, you still have to write in your total, thus underscoring your decision not to offer up a gratuity. It's a big, shining beacon of cheapness. Even worse, paranoia forces you to draw a slash through the empty tip line because you now worry that the stiffed worker will spitefully punish you for your parsimony and reward themselves with an amount of their own choosing.

Being unable to draw that slash myself, I am stuck with the task of trying to determine the value of the work just provided to me. Has the hostess who just handed me my take-out order rendered some service above and beyond what I expected? Well, no, I expected napkins and bread. Did she move the bags of take-out food from the shelf behind her to the counter in front of me with such care and skill that an extra payment is undeniable? Likely not. And, of course, she's watching me, waiting for me to fill out and sign. The pressure is awful. Just when I decide to stand strong, I think: "Maybe she shares her tips with everyone else who made this moment happen." Once pooled, my tip may go to cooks, dishwashers, wait staff, busboys and bartenders. How could I not reward those people? Still, what is that worth? Ten percent? Twenty? I didn't use any dishes. No one made me a daiquiri or refilled my water glass. Okay, so if not a percentage, perhaps maybe a flat fee? What's the going rate for not providing table service? Two bucks? Five? All I really want is to get my food and get out of there without feeling like a terrible person, or at the very least, not being seen as one.

If all of this sounds picayune compared to the troubles of the average worker today, please understand that my greatest complaint about the tip jar is that it's a symbol of those very troubles. It's clear that if a business owner or corporate manager wanted the jar or credit card "Tip" line removed, it would be gone in a heartbeat. But that hasn't happened. In fact, tip-a-palooza has only metastasized in the last two decades.

Not coincidentally, wages over the same decades have stagnated, management and corporations have done better and workers have done worse. It's clear that the ownership class has learned that rather than increase wages and cut its own profits, they would simply rather have employees go begging by way of the jar. Bosses have found a way to keep their prices low, their profits high and pass part of their staffing costs onto consumers -- allaying their own guilt and raising ours. Even better for the folks on top, they look magnanimous to their employees for allowing them to receive tips above their meager wages. By in large, in this group of workers, there are no pension plans, no health or dental insurance, no disability insurance or even an employee discount, and now their employers don't even have to offer a full, fair wage. Is it any wonder that fast food workers -- service employees who don't yet receive tips -- are striking for better pay, or that business interests are fighting tooth-and­‐nail against raising the minimum wage? Why should they? Just throw a tip jar up on the counter, and pass on the responsibility.

The truth is that in the new economy of America (tip jars are certainly less prevalent in the rest of the world, and tipping is even considered rude in a large number of countries) the tip isn't just a little extra something for a little extra effort, it's pretty much a chunk of a service worker's salary. No wonder the Calzone Man was so angry. In his mind, George wasn't just stealing his tip, George was stealing the difference between what the Calzone Man should have been paid and what he, unfortunately, was being paid. Today, it seems almost everyone is "working for tips."