A Fairer System for Tipping

As long as American diners are paying gratuity, this is how it should be done.

A waitress picks up lunch plates at Homegirl Cafe in Los Angeles in 2010. (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)

Consider two tables at a restaurant. One is a four-top of 30-something men. This is a prime table: They’re likely to order a lot, probably opting to tack on appetizers and beer, which means their check will yield a fairly high tip. Table two is a mother and her three young children. These customers, on the other hand, will be ordering kids’ meals and, one would assume, a lot less beer. Their check will be smaller, and so will their tip, even if the young children demand more attention than the 30-somethings.

As a server, this system can be frustrating: Why should my earnings suffer because of who happened to sit in my section that night? I’ve worked in restaurants where the more senior servers always get the most desirable tables, and that’s aggravating for the rest of the staff, who also make $3 an hour and depend on tips to bring them up to a living wage. Inevitably, servers with slower sections will end up supporting their coworkers who are busier, but they never see compensation for that work.

Now I work at a restaurant that has a solution to all this: We pool our tips.

When customers hear about this arrangement, many are baffled. Some even refrain from tipping, or give much lower tips, after they learn that their money isn’t going directly to their server, the “right” person. Many of my non-industry friends are confused, and often curious, when they hear that in my current restaurant job the servers share the money each shift. “But isn’t everyone mad that they don’t get to keep what they earned?” some may ask. These questions amuse me, but also leave me somewhat deflated—they reflect Americans’ tightly held belief in independence, which suggests that people are living the lives they, and they alone, have earned.

Working in a restaurant, such a thing is impossible to believe. When going out to eat, an astonishing number of customers don’t realize just how many human beings contribute to their experience. Someone chopped those vegetables that morning and roasted them that afternoon. Someone tested the sauces, kneaded the dough, and refrigerated it for later. Someone wiped down the tables and chairs and laid out the silverware. And as customers eat, someone clears dishes, refills water glasses, and comes rushing over with fresh silverware when they hear the tinkle of a fork hitting the floor.

Many people come away from their meals believing their server to be the sole shaper of their experience. In some sense, the whole point of a good restaurant is that customers aren’t supposed to think about all those people toiling behind the scenes. Personally, one reason I love serving tables is that it’s genuinely fun to provide people with a magical experience in which delicious food appears steaming at the table and beer glasses seem to refill themselves. But I couldn’t do any of it without my coworkers, both in the front and back of the house.

What’s more, I like pooling tips with my coworkers. For me, it not only accurately reflects our contributions to our customers’ experiences, but it also makes for a more pleasant work environment—not to mention the fact that if I earn unusually low tips one night, it’s made up for by the fact that I get a portion of my fellow servers’ tips. And vice versa. Tip-sharing might even be one ingredient of a good business: The most economically successful restaurants I’ve worked in (and, to be fair, I’m talking about two out of a total of six) are the ones that have shared tips.

The Department of Labor clarifies that “a valid tip pooling or sharing arrangement among employees who customarily and regularly receive tips” is legal under the Fair Labor Standards Act. “Pooling” and “sharing” are often used interchangeably, but, legally speaking, they’re different. A tip pool consists of putting all tips from a shift together into a single pot and distributing them according to role. Typically servers get the biggest portion, and bartenders, bussers, and expediters get smaller portions. This hierarchy exists because servers receive a wage, dictated on a state-by-state basis, that’s well below minimum and depend on tips to cover that gap, while bussers are paid minimum wage and bartenders get their own tips from the bar. (Kitchen staff cannot legally participate in a tip pool, because they do not “customarily and regularly receive tips,” as one Ohio restaurant discovered in 2012.) Tip sharing, on the other hand, means that servers collect their own tips, and then “tip out” a small percentage to other front-of-house staff (such as the bartender and bussers).

At my current job, we have a tip pool. The management apportions a small percentage of the pool to the bartender and bussers, and the rest gets split evenly among the servers. Since servers in Washington, D.C., (where I work) are usually making $2.77 an hour, they rely on those tips to support themselves. The amount I usually take home varies, but on an average night last year I would make about $120 during a six-hour shift after tips were distributed. (This is pre-tax income, which is worth noting because of how highly earned tips are taxed.) Kitchen staff are often paid at or above minimum wage, so they are not included in our tip pool, although I would personally understand and support a system in which they were.

How does a system like this work in a country whose culture is ruled by the belief that people deserve only what they themselves earn? This is a legitimate concern for restaurant owners and managers—there do have to be systems in place that weed out moochers and half-hearted workers. But in my experience, when these policies are in place, a funny thing happens: They rarely need to be used. Servers start to realize that when we help each other out, tips are higher, customers are happier, tables turn faster, and we can actually enjoying ourselves at work. New servers who join the staff are pressured to participate; they either discover that the system works well for them, or they leave.

“What do you need?”—on a busy Friday night, this question is constantly shouted across the server station. We examine our coworkers as keenly as we do our customers, trying to discern their emotions. And in my workplace, there’s no shame in asking for a hand. In fact, you’re not doing your job if you don’t.