Toussaint column: The moral imperative of tipping

Once upon a time, I was the worst waitress ever.

It’s a tough job, one where survival depends on tips. April Crow-Spaulding, who has worked in the service industry here for more than 35 years, says she has worked at Roaring Fork Valley restaurants “where you actually owe money when you get your paycheck because you didn’t earn enough hourly to pay the taxes on your sales!”

Yes, that’s possible, because the national Fair Labor Standards Act exempts tipped employees from minimum wage requirements. Colorado’s minimum wage for tipped employees is currently $8.08 (with a proposed increase to $8.98 in 2020). That’s a good bit better than the U.S. wage, but as my friend Megan Tackett says, “nobody is getting by in this valley on $8 an hour.”

The local earnings range for servers is enormous. A good server at an upscale dinner spot in Aspen can make over $500 a night. (She’s one in a hundred.) But a morning waitress at the diner? Not so much.

My former minister, Reverend Florence Caplow, referencing an opinion piece by David Brooks, recently got me to thinking about the moral imperative of tipping. Rev. Caplow advised: “Tip 20 percent when the meal is over $25 and 30 percent when it is under. Always, always, always leave a tip in a hotel room. And to combat implicit bias when tipping drivers and others, commit to a percentage for all rides and stick to it.”

That’s advice I’m endeavoring to follow.

I know that waiting tables is a tough job. In my teens, I worked briefly as a waitress at a delicatessen on the Snowmass Mall. I was a disaster for several reasons: First, I’m hearing impaired. It isn’t all that obvious when you first meet me, but in noisy environments, often I mishear statements or miss them entirely. Second, I’m clumsy when rushed. After I broke an expensive glass coffee pot for the second time, Sweet Broten’s owner took pity on me and “promoted” me to fry cook and ice cream scooper.

I actually did pretty well during my Snowmass ski bum days, but it wasn’t because of my waitressing. I had two other jobs: working with the slope packing crews for lift tickets and cleaning condominiums. Folks usually left fairly decent tips for the condos’ maids.

I arrived in Aspen via Greyhound bus in December 1970 with the grand sum of $20 in my pocket; I left in April 1971 with around $200, due mostly to my success as a maid. But the prospect of cleaning other people’s toilets for the rest of my life prompted me to drop back in to college. Perhaps studying Beowulf and learning to identify minerals would lead to something productive, after all?

Times are tougher now. Many young people don’t have the option of dropping in to college in the first place. Tuition has increased tenfold, and young people graduate with debt that will haunt them for decades. Housing is so out of step with wages that nationally, according to data crunched by Business Insider magazine, a minimum wage worker needs two-and-half jobs to afford a one-bedroom apartment!

Lest we think it’s any different here, a housing study was funded by the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority, Garfield County and Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs in 2019. It concluded that “The region’s workers have struggled for decades with the price of housing in the Roaring Fork Valley” facing a gap between median income that ranges from $290,000 a year in Carbondale to $1.4 million in Aspen and Snowmass Village.

That impacts not only tipped workers, but also underpaid workers who don’t get any tips: teachers, police, firefighters, nonprofit workers and Walmart clerks. (And don’t bother telling me that all those folks should have chosen other jobs. We can’t live in a society composed of nothing but software engineers, hedge fund managers, plastic surgeons and stockbrokers!)

In my opinion, no one who works full time, let alone MORE than full time, should be unable to afford a roof over their head. To me, the fact that many service workers (including child care providers and teachers) must have “side hustles” to survive amounts to a society-wide moral failing.

My leaving a tip, a good cash tip, isn’t going to change that, but I have officially abandoned the idea that I’m tipping to recognize “good service.” (It’s a notion that’s rather fallacious in any case, because the tip comes too late to have any impact on the service.) Like David Brooks, I think the tipping system inflames existing class, gender and racial inequalities, and is generally immoral.

But like Brooks, I’m making the best of a bad situation, and viewing a 30 to 50 percent cash tip left on the table as “a small but direct way to redistribute money to those who are working hard to earn a living.” Even those harried enough to break a second coffeepot!

Nicolette Toussaint lives in Carbondale. Her column appears monthly in the Post Independent and at

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