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Most would agree…

If you’re not a fan of tipping, the way restaurants are run in North America is probably to your liking. Wait staff are paid less money on the assumption that diners will top up their wages with gratuities. That, at least in theory, helps keep prices lower. So, if you let others carry the burden of an extra 10 to 20 per cent, you get to dine out a bit cheaper under the system as it exists.

If you’ve ever been to Europe, for instance, you’ll have discovered that dining out is more expensive – as are so many things – because the cost of the service is built into the price. Tipping isn’t the norm, though some people leave the small change behind.

Tipping itself is fraught with issues, which has spawned countless discussions of etiquette that extend beyond restaurants to all kinds of services, from cab drivers and bellhops to hairdressers and the paperboy. It’s enough to drive anyone to channel their inner Mr. Pink, he of that classic anti-tipping rant from Reservoir Dogs. Why should we be expected to shell out 10 or 20 per cent more for someone to bring our food to the table, no matter how surly, yet there’s no mechanism for rewarding exceptionally good retail service, for instance?

In almost every case, tipping is directed at low-paying jobs. Historically, the idea was that the chance to earn a little something extra was an incentive to provide great service. Today, it’s expected as a matter of course, largely as a way to top-up poor pay. That being the case, you’d like to think the money you leave goes to the server. That, however, is not always the case.

That’s where Beaches-East York MPP Michael Prue comes in. This week, he re-introduced his private member’s bill to prevent restaurant owners and managers from taking a slice of their staff’s tips.

Prue has heard many horror stories, with some establishments pocketing all of the gratuities and some with so-called tip-out policies that demand wait staff pay to the establishment a percentage, typically five per cent, of the gross cost of the meals they serve, regardless of how much they earn through tips.

So if a waitress serves $100 worth of meals to a particular table, she has to kick back $5 to the restaurant, even if she doesn’t get a tip.

“The server pays $5 for the privilege of doing work,” says Prue, likening the practice to a kickback.

It’s against the law to take a portion of an employee’s wage – for instance, demanding a factory worker kick back $1 an hour to the boss – just to work there, so why shouldn’t the same protection apply to the tips of people in the service industry? he asks.

“We don’t think that’s fair.”

Prue points out there’s a difference between those kinds of tip-outs and traditional tip sharing, in which a portion of the tips is distributed to busboys, bartenders, hostesses, kitchen staff and other workers who make the dining experience. But the money should never go to management and owners, he insists.

His research shows restaurants and bars have plenty of “inventive ways” of increasing their profits at the expense of their staff members. As it stands, there’s no protection against those practices, which is why his bill is needed.
“The legislation is just one line: no employer should take any portion of any employee’s tips or gratuities.”

If we’re going to be doling out tip money to augment the low wages of restaurant staff, then they should be getting the money. That’s the expectation of those of us leaving a tip.

If the staff were paid a living wage, as is the case in Europe, then we wouldn’t need these measures, notes Prue. Since that’s not the case, we can’t let employers get away with unfair practices.

Since having first introduced such legislation in 2010, Prue has received overwhelmingly positive feedback. Not surprisingly, restaurant and bar owners have led the opposition, wanting to keep the gravy train rolling.

His previous private member’s bill received all-party support, but was allowed to languish prior to third reading and ultimately died when the last session of the Legislature wound down before the election.

This time around, with a minority government in place, he expects a better outcome, one that will protect some of the most vulnerable workers. People desperate for work will accept the clawing away of their incomes in order to keep their jobs, he says, noting changes to the law would provide them with a recourse.

The legislation he introduced this week could come back for second reading in November, when he gets his turn to support the bill, or sooner if he’s able to trade spots with another MPP. In the meantime, he continues to field calls over an issue that resonates with people.

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