Here’s a Tip: Pay a Just Wage

“I’ll tip if somebody really deserves a tip,” Mr. Pink explained in Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino’s classic film. “If they put forth the effort, I’ll give them something extra. But I mean, this tipping automatically, it’s for the birds. As far as I’m concerned they’re just doing their job.”

I have to admit, Mr. Pink makes a compelling argument. However, I part ways with him when he says that “I don’t tip because society says I have to.” As much as I don’t like tipping, I do it. For one thing, I know what Mr. White knows, that “waitressing is the number one occupation for female non-college graduates in this country. It’s the one job basically any woman can get and make a living on. The reason is because of their tips.” (If you are interested, YouTube has the entire profanity-laced discussion, but I recommend the whole film.)

More importantly, I tip because of the social compact. In this country, we have decided that we are going to pay our waitresses (and waiters) very small wages, but that customers will make up for it with tips. Until that paradigm is changed, I am going to leave a healthy gratuity on the table every time I go out.

I believe, however, the time has come for that model to change. Catholic Social Teaching is clear on the imperative to provide a just wage to employees. I’m not sure an employer who expects their employees to depend on the generosity of customers is providing one, especially since it is only after a server has provided the service that the customer decides how much to pay for it.

When LeSean McCoy left a 20-cent tip on a $61.56 bill, he made an argument similar to Mr. Pink’s: “A 20-cent tip is kind of a statement,” McCoy said. “You can’t disrespect somebody and expect them to tip you. I don’t care who the person is.” That certainly is a statement, but I think it says more about the man who has a base salary of $7.6 million than the one who makes $2.83 an hour.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that the running back’s server was terrible. McCoy still could have left a tip that respected the waiter as a person and laborer while still indicating his displeasure with the subpar service. For what it’s worth, it probably also would have saved him some negative press as well.

Tipping doesn’t apply only in restaurants. The Marriot hotel chain has implemented a program, probably well-intentioned, known as “The Envelope Please.” From now on, in each hotel room an envelope will be left to remind guests to tip the housekeeping staff. A much better system would be to have an additional few dollars automatically added to the bill at checkout, with that money given to the people who pick up our dirty socks and scrub our toilets.

I don’t know how much a Marriot housekeeper makes, but I imagine it can’t be much. By making an employee’s take-home pay dependent upon the whims of the guest, however, Marriot is passing the buck that rightfully lies with them. Restaurant and hotel owners, like all business leaders, “are responsible to society… to consider the good of persons and not only the increase of profits” when making all business decisions, including how much to pay their employees.

The great pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes reminds us that “remuneration for labor is to be such that man may be furnished the means to cultivate worthily his own material, social, cultural, and spiritual life and that of his dependents.” All too many of these housekeepers, waitresses, and others in low-wage, tip-dependent positions are being taken advantage of, much like the immigrant in Cardinal Sean’s story. They certainly are not earning enough to raise a family in accordance with the minimum standards set down by the Council fathers.

I have to believe they are also exactly the type of people of whom the Lord spoke when He commanded us to “not exploit a poor and needy hired servant” and to “pay the servant’s wages before the sun goes down, since the servant is poor and is counting on them. Otherwise the servant will cry to the LORD against you, and you will be held guilty.”

Mr. Pink is right. A waitress is just doing her job when she fills my coffee cup. In return for that job, she should be paid a just wage and the tips should be reserved for truly exceptional service. After all, not every waiter can expect Charlie Sheen to continue the chain of love when they get stiffed on a tip.

After an honest day’s work, everyone should receive an honest day’s pay. It should not matter if Mr. Pink or Mr. White or Mr. McCoy walks through the door.