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Q: Tipping in the USA ( Answered 4 out of 5 stars,   13 Comments )
Subject: Tipping in the USA
Category: Relationships and Society
Asked by: geof-ga
List Price: $5.00
Posted: 13 Apr 2004 15:00 PDT
Expires: 13 May 2004 15:00 PDT
Question ID: 329729
As a European (UK), I have long been puzzled by the US enthusiasm for
tipping, such that it is even a fact of Google Answers. I would have
thought that given the nation's strong libertarian traditions, its
belief in the dignity of the individual, and relatively high levels of
both wages and prices, tipping in the USA would be fairly low key as
it is in Europe, or near non-existent as in Australia. Is the main
pressure from the receiver (as one would think), or is it more the
case that the tipper wants to be seen as a big spender? I would of
course welcome a definitive answer ($5 fee, no tip!) but also feel
free to comment.
Subject: Re: Tipping in the USA
Answered By: journalist-ga on 13 Apr 2004 18:27 PDT
Rated:4 out of 5 stars
Greetings Geof:

Believe me, I understand your puzzlement.  One of the major problems
causing "expected" tipping in the US is fostered by restaurant owners.
 In many states, a restaurant owner is not required by law to pay
minimum wage to food servers.  Many times it's half of minimum wage or
even lower, $2.13 in some states.  In financial reality, waitresses
and waiters (only non-union waiters and there is no "waitresses
union") actually depend on tips to make any kind of decent hourly

"Almost 1 1/2 million waiters and waitresses, along with hundreds of
thousands more delivery people and other "tipped" employees, can be
legally paid as little as $2.13 an hour. That's a few dimes an hour
more than a garment worker in the Dominican Republic earns. The Fair
Labor Standards Act allows restaurants and other employers to use your
tips and mine to make up the difference between the subminimum wage
for "tipped employees" and everyone else's $5.15 hourly minimum wage.
In sum, these employers get a $3.02 subsidy out of our tips for every
hour a waiter or waitress works."
From a 2000 article from The Washington Post at

Here's a forum thread about tipping that discusses the low wages:

This next reference is from a June 6, 2003, National Public Radio
report on America's poor.  While it tells of a Maryland waitress being
paid $7.35 an hour, it also tells (about halfway down the page) of a
couple of Maine waitresses who make $3.15 an hour.
"Adams visits TJ's restaurant in Auburn, Maine, for a conversation
with two waitresses, Tammy Ogden and Deborah Simpson, and a
dishwasher, Rebecca Brown. None of them work a 40-hour week, and the
server's pay is $3.18 an hour -- half Maine's minimum wage -- plus

FindLaw addresses this at
"Employers are allowed to credit tips received by tipped employees
against the minimum wage owed to those employees under certain
circumstances...For example, a waitress works 40 hours in a week
during which time she earned $80 in tips, which is $2 per hour in
tips. The employer is allowed to take $2 per hour as credit against
the $5.15 minimum wage."
Please read the entire piece about this as I could only reference a
bit of here due to copyright honor.

And here's the federal stance:
"6. The Small Business Job Protection Act also restructures the
statutory design of tip credits. The previous statutory approach was
to calculate tip credit and minimum cash amounts employers may pay as
percentages of the Fair Labor Standards Act minimum wage. The new law
retains--but as a fixed dollar figure rather than as a percentage--the
previous minimum cash amount ($2.13 per hour) employers could pay to
tipped employees. If tips actually received are not sufficient, when
added to $2.13, to total the new minimum wage of $4.75 (as of October
1, 1996) or $5.15 (as of September 1, 1997), the employer must also
pay the additional difference to the tipped employee.

"Within the Federal Wage Systems, this change affects the special pay
plan governing tip offsets for nonappropriated fund Federal Wage
Systems employees classified as Waiter/ Waitress. (See 5 CFR 532.283.)
Under these special schedules, a tip offset is the amount of money by
which an employer, in meeting the legal minimum wage standard, may
reduce a tipped employee's wage in consideration of tips received."
The above two paragraphs are from the U.S. OFFICE OF PERSONNEL
MANAGEMENT site, 1996
See also S11-3 Special Pay Plan for Nonappropriated Fund Tipped
Positions Classified as Waiter/Waitress at

If restaurant owners were held accountable by law, then this expected
tipping would change. However, waitressing (or waitering) is
considered by many to a low-skills job...but anyone who has ever
waited tables knows how much work is really involved. There's not only
the "grunt work" of serving and cleaning up but this must be balanced
with extraordinary people skills in order to do a fine job of it.

When I go into a restaurant in my state (one of the $2.13 states), I
go armed with the knowledge that my waitress or waiter is only making
$2.13 an hour.  When I receive remarkable service, I tip 20+%.  Good
service, 15% standard tip.  Sub-standard service...well, that depends.
 Having been a waitress, I know when something is probably the cook's
fault and I also know when the wait-person has left the food for too
long under the heat lamp because she's too busy (this is sometimes not
her fault: many restaurants seem grossly understaffed to me).  But if
I'm waited on by a rude server, I don't tip at all. The latter is a
very rare scenario but I've had it happen.

In America (at least in all the restaurants in America that I've
visited), 15% of the total check is *expected* as a tip.  Some people
I know just double the tax (even though that's about 18% in some
states).  Believe it or not, my cell phone even has a tip calculator! 
It's just expected here because most people know the servers are

Regarding tips at Google Answers, they aren't expected by any
Researcher that I know.  It's always a pleasant surprise to receive
one but I never expect a tip.  In my opinion, the feature is present
because some customers asking a question may not realize the time
involved in their answer once they see it, or they may just be
delighted that they recieve much more than they expected.  Other times
it might be because they've asked many clarifications of the
researcher and the customer feels the Researcher deserves more money
because of the extra work (once a question is answered, the price
cannot be changed).  Personally, I don't think of a tip here as a tip;
I regard it as a surprise work bonus.

Anyway, I hope the links and explanations I've provided have
enlightened your perspective a bit on the tipping practice in American
restaurants.  Regarding tipping of bellhops, doormen, etc., I think
people tip them because they have to wear such interesting costumes. 

Should you require any clarification of the links or information I
have provided, please request it and I will be happy to respond.  I'm
pleased that you asked this question because I believe the food
servers of America should be honored *by their employers* with a
decent, living wage.  And, yes, sometimes people do tip to impress
their dates.  :)

Best regards,


The Minimum Wage and a "Tipping Wage" 
A report on a survey of people who work at or near the minimum wage in Manitoba 
Submitted to the Minimum Wage Board of Manitoba April 30, 2001 
By Michael MacKenzie And Jo Snyder 
Prepared for The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Manitoba 


"waitress wages" minimum
waitress "minimum wage"
waitress "minimum wage" tennessee
waitress "minimum wage" federal
geof-ga rated this answer:4 out of 5 stars
Many thanks, Journalist, for that very full answer. I find it very
surprising that in the US tips can be counted towards the legal
minimum wage, and they can get away with paying serving staff as
little as $2.13 per hour; but this certainly explains why staff should
be so anxious about the level of tips - though I'm not sure that it
justifies the degree of sheer venom contained in the "bitterwaitress"
website referred to by Voila. Moreover, on a strictly logical basis,
if tipping is intended to supplement basic wages, then surely it
should relate to time spent in the eating place rather than the cost
of the meal - why should a waiter get a bigger tip for carrying an
expensive steak from the kitchen to the table, than for carrying a
plate of pasta? As implied in Eiffel's comment, this seems to be
something of a vicious circle - so long as customers make up the
shortfall with tips, employers will continue to pay lousy wages to
serving staff.

Subject: Re: Tipping in the USA
From: voila-ga on 13 Apr 2004 19:22 PDT
Bitter Waitress
Subject: Re: Tipping in the USA
From: eiffel-ga on 14 Apr 2004 03:55 PDT
It seems to me from this answer that if people stopped tipping (except
in the case of truly exceptional service) the restaurant owners would
have to pay the waiting staff more, and this would reduce the need to
Subject: Re: Tipping in the USA
From: journalist-ga on 14 Apr 2004 14:27 PDT

It is, indeed, a vicious cycle.  I must agree with my colleague,
Eiffel-ga, on the remark "if people stopped tipping (except in the
case of truly exceptional service) the restaurant owners would have to
pay the waiting staff more, and this would reduce the need to tip."

If this was the case and the owners didn't offer more pay, then they
would have no one to serve their products.

Again, Geof, thanks for asking this question.  I believe it's a matter
that deserves to be given careful thought.

Best regards,
Subject: Re: Tipping in the USA
From: ersatzsemblance-ga on 16 Apr 2004 09:22 PDT
Let us not forget that alot of wait-staff make MORE than minimum wage
because of the tips.  My wife used to make a killing when she worked
as a third shift waitress, it was not uncommon for her to bring home
$100+ a night after an eight hour shift.
Subject: Re: Tipping in the USA
From: questionguy-ga on 16 Apr 2004 13:47 PDT
I am not sure if everyone realized this, so I just wanted to state
it.. Put yourself in the shoes of the resturant owner.  If you want
your staff - wait staff to better serve your customers, how do you
motivate them to better serve YOUR customers?  Pay them, or have them
paid more, for good service, to keep your customers coming back.
Subject: Re: Tipping in the USA
From: johnbs-ga on 17 Apr 2004 04:12 PDT
As an occasional visitor to the US, I have found the tipping culture
somewhat wearing. The thread has focused on waitressing and minimum
wages: I guess the same principles apply to bell-boys etc, but once we
enter the realm of taxi drivers....?

I have never forgotten a memorable evening in a "Moroccan" restaurant
in Lost Wages: the Belly dancers were entertaining, and the food
excellent. I settled the bill on behalf of our small party, c. $300 or
so. I added 15%, and was given such a look of scorn by the recipient
that I resolved never to return. I guess that?s the real issue here:
the tip (and it?s magnitude) becomes an expectation, not a bonus
reflecting mutual pleasure.
Subject: Re: Tipping in the USA
From: redsharky-ga on 18 Apr 2004 05:02 PDT
Don't forget that many servers make less than minimum wage during
certain shifts!  From my experience this was especially true when I
worked lunches.  The food costs less so the tips are also less. 
Working weekend nights could usually offset this.
Subject: Re: Tipping in the USA
From: voila-ga on 18 Apr 2004 10:22 PDT
Hello Geof,

Sorry to be so curt in just depositing that link without much
explanation.  I was just popping in on a break from my full-time job. 
I would like to take the time to offer an opinion -- and that's all it
is -- since you're trying to make sense of the tipping policy in the

As far as "Bitter Waitress" is concerned, I feel the site is probably
used for shock value more than anything else.  However, I'm afraid you
didn't get far enough into the site.  Where you saw only venom, I saw
just as many laudatory comments about customer generosity.  If people
in the service industry need a platform to draw attention to their
situation, they are quite entitled.  Whether the tactic of shaming or
'outing' a customer's poor tipping practice will change anything on a
larger scale, that remains to be seen.

For a more political solution:

or here:

Another site and commentary that may help elucidate the tip situation
is listed below.  While this scenario doesn't occur in every
restaurant, these situations do exist and educating customers can only
serve to enlighten customer 'where the money goes.' 

"Your server has to tip too. It is very common for a waiter or
waitress to have to tip out their supporting staff, i.e.; the
bartender, buss person, food runners and others. Bartenders may have
to tip out their bar backs. These tips are based often on the sales of
the server, so if you don?t tip them, in addition to the 8% the
government gets they often have to shell out money to the support
staff putting them further in the hole. Sometimes the support staff is
tipped a percent of the servers' tips."

If you'd like to get further opinions, you might also check the message board here:

and many more opinions here:

I also wouldn't go so far as to say Americans are 'enthusiastic' about
tipping, but we also know how hard these people work.  Those employed
in the service industry, according to a 2000 study by BLS, make up a
large percentage of the working poor.

"The occupation in which one was employed continued to be related to
the likelihood of being among the working poor in 2000. Almost 31
percent of the poor who worked during the year were employed in
service occupations as their longest job of the year. Looked at
another way, nearly 11 percent of all workers who were in the labor
force for at least 27 weeks and whose longest job over the year was in
services were poor, more than twice the average for all occupations.
Private household workers, a subset of service workers that is made up
largely of women, were the most likely to be in poverty (20 percent)."


You also mentioned the tip policy at Google Answers, so I'll give you
my thoughts.  While the term "tips" has come to mean "to insure prompt
service" in the restaurant business, *promptness* is only one factor
that enters into delivering a well-researched answer.  As you look
around the site, you'll see the care and lengths my colleagues will go
to in providing a client with a stellar response.   To my way of
thinking, anyone 'tipping' a researcher is acknowledging those
considerable extra efforts.

Personally, I prefer the term 'gratuity' to 'tipping' in our milieu. 
Whether you're a researcher providing information or a customer
rewarding an answer with a tip, both parties should complete their
exchange freely.   A tip is a 'gift' as are the many unacknowledged
comments on this site (a large "thank you" to all of you, BTW!).

Gratuity:   "graciousness," from M.L. gratuitas "gift," probably from
L. gratuitus "free, freely given."   Meaning "money given for favor or
services" is first attested 1540.

There is no 'school of graciousness,' though, so people must let their
conscience be their guide.

Do people feel a need to see themselves as 'big spender' when they
leave a large tip?   Perhaps.  I tend to feel that they add a generous
gratuity (or bonus) because they're financially able to and they're
looking after those researchers who exceed the minimum requirements. 
As a 'grateful nation' of researchers, we appreciate the customers who
wish to reward that level of excellence.  This seems a matter of
common sense rather than one of politics.  I could be wrong.

Off to the third job... ;-)
Subject: Re: Tipping in the USA
From: lahoria-ga on 21 Apr 2004 15:21 PDT
and wht i hate most abt tips is that have to pay taxes on them too :(.
and in W-2 ( Internal Revenue Service form which reports income paid
and taxes withheld by an employer for a particular employee during a
calendar year ) many a times the tips are automaticaly *calculated* at
the rate of 8% of the sales server has made. to me its like Govt. is
taxing the *gratitude* too. well may be soon we would be taxed on
happiness and other emotions too ;)
p.s well it might not be a bad idea to *tax* anger. the more one get
mad/angry the more one has to pay :)
Subject: Re: Tipping in the USA
From: swzine-ga on 03 May 2004 21:37 PDT
I found this interesting site once when I was wondering how much I
should tip the pizza delivery guy!  It really gives you an idea of
what another part of the service industry has to go through -
Subject: Re: Tipping in the USA
From: iambemused-ga on 04 May 2004 04:55 PDT
As an Australian i have had little experience with tipping. However,
all of my US experience in this area has been bad.

Here in Australia, tipping is something that is done as a reward for
exceptional service. Good service is expected - so it is not tipped.
Only exceptional service is rewarded above the "job rate".

Most of the answers that i have seen heavily emphasise the "underpaid
workers" aspect.

The other aspect is "service excellence". Throughout my early years in
business i was always reading about the high levels of service being
offered in the US - and the relationship of reward with effort.

Accordingly, when the opportunity to travel to the US came up i was
very much looking forward to seeing this in action. Accordingly, i
studied the tipping suggestions to ensure that i followed

We travelled in a family group of 10 people. Accordingly, we generally
paid 10 individual tips.

From the outset i was disappointed at the level of service being
offered. The issue of tipping became a fairly important one as there
seemed to be no correlation between service levels and tipping.

There also seemed to be no relativity between the size of the tips and
the services being offered.

The issue of underpaid workers appeared a joke when looking at the
level of tips that were being paid.

It may have been that the tourist areas were not a good example of the
broader experience. It may have been that travelling in a group
over-emphasised the impact. It may have been the 1 to 2 exchange rate
that made the tips seem excessive.

However, i returned to Australia with an absolute dislike of the
process. Tipping people ANY money for poor service feels like
rewarding underperformance. Frankly, if the person cannot do the job
then they shouldn't even be paid the $2.37 an hour.

As a tourist, we could not use the "i'll never return here" line... 

If tipping were ever to "catch on" here in Australia i'd start a
campaign to stop it before the rot set in.

The researched answers also provide an interesting backing to current
debate in some parts of Australia about the minimum wage level. If
tipping is the cost, then i'd rather pay a higher fixed cost
everywhere than move to tipping to make up for a too low minimum wage.

i have just read my note... mmmm... hopefully it will not be seen as
being too emotional... rather, please read it as an "outsiders" view
of tipping as it applies in the United States.
Subject: Re: Tipping in the USA
From: lactaid-ga on 13 May 2004 00:43 PDT
I'm sorry, but I will have to differ with iambemused.  I lived in
Melbourne, Australia for a year and my service in resturants ranged
from excellent to very poor.  The very expensive places I ate at
offered excellent service.  Exactly what you would come to expect from
any classy resturant.  However, when I visited the moderate range
resturants (something similar to a chain steak house or pasta place)
my service was generally very poor.  There were numerous times that I
had a rude encounter with a waiter or waitress that completely ignored
my requests.  One encounter haunts me to this day.

I was at Airlie Beach, a popular tourist destination in Queensland,
Australia and decided to go to a very popular steak house.  I ordered
a medium-rare steak.  I received, approximately twenty minutes later,
a well done steak.  I politely asked the waitress to take the steak
back.  Ten minutes later she returns, with the same steak.  The same
steak.  I could not believe my eyes.  At this point I was very
frustrated and explained to the waitress what happened.  She
apologized and tried again.  The third steak (technically second) I
recieved was also well done.  I complained and left without paying.

I found through this and other experiences that this lack of service
could not be addressed indirectly because as salary workers the
waiters often displayed an arrogant attitude of "what does it matter
to me?  you're not going to tip anyways"  I feel that a tipping system
demands a certain respectability and effort, however superficial, on
the part of servers.

P.S.  I am also an Asian, and I hope that this was not the underlying
reason for the bad service as most of the Australians I met were not
overt racists.
Subject: Re: Tipping in the USA
From: mmmurf-ga on 08 Jul 2004 03:59 PDT
Tipping is a way to give the waitstaff an incentive to perform well
and to respond to the needs of the customer.

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