Whenever young journalists ask how to write stories that can change lives, I suggest they start asking about tipping policies whenever they see a tip jar or valet, or visit a restaurant.
No matter what city in the U.S. they call home, it’s only a matter of time before such questions unearth a story of injustice that will outrage the public and likely change the daily lives of fellow humans who make their living waiting on the rest of us.
For more than 10 years, I’ve been writing about tipping practices that punish employees who, by law, already make an abysmal hourly wage.
Some employers and supervisors seem never to run out of ways to cheat hardworking men — and mostly women — who spend entire workdays on their feet trying to please strangers.
Bosses, for example, may skim or keep the entire contents of tip jars, which I first discovered in 2004. They also may deduct a credit-card service charge from tips not left in cash. Sometimes, they violate federal labor law and force servers to pay unpaid checks left by scurrying customers.
As I’ve learned in my years of reporting, there are essentially two ways to change these dishonorable practices. One way is to call them out, one reported incident at a time, thus alerting a public willing to wield the force of their wallets. The other way, which is far more effective, is to pass laws to protect the rights of these hourly wage earners whose desire to stay employed and support their families renders them defenseless.
In Rhode Island, state representative Aaron Regunberg is trying to legislate what some restaurant owners will do only when it is demanded of them. His bill, co-sponsored in the state senate by Gayle Goldin, would elevate the daily lives of those who work in the food service industry by raising the minimum wage and eliminating tip theft.
His bill would incrementally raise tipped workers’ wages until, by 2020, they would be comparable to the state’s regular minimum wage. Imagine that. Still not a living wage, perhaps, but at least they would no longer be forced to depend on tips to make even the minimum.
The bill would also end the employer practice of deducting credit-card service fees from tips. It would restrict the use of pooled tips. And it would require that employees receive the total amount of the tips and those deceptively tagged “service charges,” which customers too often mistakenly assume to mean “tips.”
Regunberg is a former community organizer who is young enough and engaged enough to still name many of the people he is trying to help.
“I’ve heard about these restaurant practices from constituents, but also from friends who work in the service industry,” he said in a phone interview. “The restaurant industry is well-organized and opposed to this, but what I’m hoping to do, through hearings, is voices of actual workers so their stories will be heard and shared.”
A coalition of groups in Rhode Island has coalesced in support of the bill. Among them: organized labor, the NAACP Providence Branch, Planned Parenthood, Fuerza Laboral, Farm Fresh Rhode Island and the Bell Street Chapel. The unifying theme is apparent. All of these groups, and others who have signed on, champion people who are often invisible, even when standing right in front of us.
Some restaurant owners have criticized Regunberg’s bill as overreaching. “They say, ‘There are a few bad apples, but most of us aren’t like this.’ But if you aren’t really doing this, what is the problem with tightening the law for those who are?”
That’s the kind of talk that gets you into trouble with the people who need the talkin’ to.
Regunberg illustrates why we need our young leaders for these troubled times. He imagines a better world for those who aren’t as fortunate as he, and arms himself with facts and figures to dislodge the stodgy from their affection for the status quo.
“What we’re trying to do with this bill is the epitome of economic development, because we’re putting our money into the economy,” he said. “People who work at restaurants might actually be able to take their own families out to dinner.”
Until that happens, in Rhode Island and wherever you may live, I offer these reminders.
Whenever possible, please tip in cash.
If you must leave your tip on a credit card, please ask if the server, coat-check worker or valet keeps the full amount.
Every time you see a tip jar, please ask who keeps them.
And please, dear readers, whenever you find out management has the wrong answer, drop me a line at email@example.com.
Change is incremental, but with you at the helm, it’s also unstoppable.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine.