In the realm of American commerce, tipping has become a modern-day Sisyphean task. It appears much like the Greek myth where Sisyphus was condemned to eternally roll a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back down. Much like Sisyphus, both consumers and service workers find themselves caught in an endless cycle of tipping, with no resolution in sight.
According to a recent Bankrate survey, about two-thirds of adults in the United States have a negative view of tipping. This sentiment echoes the frustration of Prometheus, the Titan who was punished for giving fire (knowledge) to humanity. In this case, the ‘fire’ is the increasing prevalence of tipping prompts. Even at self-checkout machines, which has ignited widespread irritation.
Approximately 41% of those surveyed believe that businesses should bear the responsibility of ensuring their employees are paid adequately. Instead they rely on the ‘mortals’ (consumers) to supplement wages through tips. Moreover, 32% are irked by pre-entered tip screens. 30% feel that the culture of tipping has spiraled out of control, much like the labyrinth built by Daedalus.
On the other side of the counter, service workers, like the barista Dylan Schenker, find themselves in a Herculean struggle. Schenker shared with NPR’s Stacey Vanek Smith, “There’s this awkwardness. It’s kind of verboten to say anything about tipping in front of the tip screen. You’re not supposed to talk about tipping.”
Schenker’s financial reality is a stark reminder of the trials faced by many service workers. “I’ve never made more than $25,000 a year,” says Schenker. “I cannot even wrap my head around the idea of making $30,000 or $40,000 a year. I could do so much with just that much money.”
The tipping culture in the US has been likened to a Trojan Horse. Allowing businesses to pass the responsibility of ensuring fair wages onto consumers. Sylvia Allegretto, a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told NPR the following. “Tips are a wage subsidy to the employer. It’s not a tip. It goes to your wage. It is just the amount that the employer doesn’t have to pay you. And people don’t understand that.”
Despite the growing discontent, tipping, like the mythical Hydra, continues to persist and grow in American society. For workers like Schenker, tips make up 10% to 20% of their pay. A percentage that fluctuates wildly from week to week, dependent on the whims and moods of customers.
As the debate rages on, the tipping culture in the US continues to be a tale of struggle.