Tipping Has Long Reinforced Inequality—and Trump’s DOL Wants to Make It Worse

Tipping Has Long Reinforced Inequality—and Trump’s DOL Wants to Make It Worse

A proposed Department of Labor rule would allow employers to pocket their employees’ tips. The proposed rule in no way requires that these pocketed tips are distributed among employees—employers could simply take them (a fact the DOL tried hard to cover up). The Economic Policy Institute estimates that the rule would cause workers to lose $5.8 billion in tips per year. While being rightfully outraged by this prospect, we should revisit why tipping exists in the United States in the first place.

In the late 1800s, wealthy Americans brought home from aristocratic Europe the bourgeois practice of tipping, meaning to impress by providing inferior laborers with spare change. And many employers were delighted at being able to hire formerly enslaved African Americans and pay them nothing, making them rely solely on tips.

Yet Americans were angered by tipping, claiming that it was anti-democratic and would only contribute to classism. A union-led movement against tipping in the early 1900s saw six states ban tipping altogether.

But as we know, that movement fell apart in the United States (though not in Europe), and tipping is now an ingrained standard in American society. And just as its racist and classist history would predict: Black workers receive less in tips than their white counterparts, sexism plays a role in who receives the highest tips, and nearly one-fifth of tipped workers in states that ascribe to the federal minimum tipped wage live in poverty.

Calls for a higher minimum wage don’t often include the tipped wage, which has stubbornly remained at $2.13 since the 1990s. Sure, restaurants are required to ensure that tipped employees receive at least the federal minimum wage, but that doesn’t always happen. And sure, many employees prefer receiving tips because there’s the chance they could make many times more than the minimum wage—but that is by no means typical for the average tipped employee: The median hourly wage for servers was $9.61 in 2016.

Once a practice becomes the norm, it’s easy to forget the discriminatory history and oppressive institutions that set it in motion in the first place. The DOL’s proposed tip-stealing rule could add yet another chapter to tipping’s long, unjust history.