Joco Opinion

Ellen Murphy — Getting to the tipping point

Updated: 2013-10-29T20:35:55Z

By ELLEN MURPHY

Special to The Star

Tip waiters or cabbies as if we’re millionaires, people, which we don’t have to be, by the way. Folded dollar bills show a sincere gratitude, and there’s always someone who tips more than you do. It’s a nice thank you and helps wage-earning workers make ends meet.

By the time I was 16 and earning tips as a waitress, I thought I’d died and gone to cash heaven.

In 1974 minimum wage hovered around $2 an hour in Oklahoma. Pretty soon I discovered that the company I worked for “guaranteed” a minimum wage but didn’t pay me that. My tips, mandatorily reported after every shift, replaced my wages. Some pay periods, the company didn’t even have to pay me because I made way over minimum wage in tips.

I learned fast. The negative paychecks made it clear that the company was ripping off me and my patrons.

I say “and my patrons” because I know that people intended to give me a little extra in addition to my pay. They told me that, especially after I explained how the company was paying — or not paying — my wages.

That’s why I am interested in how companies pay employees who also get tips. I know that in other countries and on resorts, tipping is considered gauche, but we never made that jump in civilization here in the Wild West, opting to impose gratuities on persons along the way to wherever we were headed. It’s in our nature, but we are in need of some tipping tips, if I may.

We’re never going to pass legislation outlawing tipping in this country. We can’t even mandate voting or background checks for gun purchase. So let’s at least understand how tipping works because it’s the unofficial law of the land.

Tipping is like greeting an acquaintance — you don’t want to overwhelm, just make a gesture. The rule of thumb in restaurants and bars, if service is prompt and timely, is a before-tax tip of 20 percent. The skycap at the airport, the valet carrying bags to your room, the person who does this and that — they all appreciate and live on moderate tips.

I don’t know the scientifically exact etiquette of tipping. From my own experience, both as a server in my younger days and as a customer, I talk to people, ask questions, and discover that a lot of service personnel work two or more jobs, and they try to do a good job to earn tips to pay bills.

Sometimes it makes a big difference.

There is a certain dark abyss in the tipping world, however, known as the private party: specifically, workers at a catered gathering, such as in a suite at The K, or at Arrowhead, or even in a private home. I don’t mean that individual guests should pony up cash: I mean that at the end of the night, when everything’s washed and stowed, packed and carried off, the people schlepping should be tipped by the hosts. Unless you have a house staff, and most of us don’t, you probably have hired individuals to serve at your party.

In dealing with a Mission-based business years ago, part of the negotiation for the price of a party held at our home was that of the food, the drinks, the labor and, at the end of the night, the owner politely informed me, the host usually tipped the employees who showed up to work the party, if they were satisfied with the work.

I would not have known this if she hadn’t told me. I was having a large party and wanted to spend time with my guests.

I planned ahead and had some $20s on hand because I wasn’t sure how many helpers would show up. It added some to the total but was money well spent for extra effort.

This was a very special occasion so the “extra” was considered essential to having a top-notch party. But in the usual business of the day, moderate tipping is a good sign of a civilized society.

If, like me, you’re unsure if tipping is appropriate, don’t be too shy to ask. I’ve never had anyone tell me it was a stupid question.

Freelance columnist Ellen Murphy writes in this space once a month.

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