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A stiff problem 

The ubiquitous tip jar

Scene from the coffee shop: "So what did you end up getting?"

"It's supposed to be a skim decaf latte, but I doubt that the slacker who made it did it right."

"It's amazing, isn't it? Not only do these guys mess up an easy job, but they expect to get tipped for it, too. Did you see that tip jar? It's stuffed."

"Yeah, but screw that -- I don't tip. I mean, these guys make six bucks an hour, and all they do is put coffee in a cup. How friggin' hard is that? Hell, my job's a lot tougher than that, and nobody tips me. Next thing you know, they're gonna expect you to tip for a Big Mac and fries. It's bullshit. If they don't make enough money then they should demand more cash from their employer or find another job; it's not up to me to subsidize their rent."

There's an adage that goes something like this: "If you can't afford to tip, you can't afford the service." This rule applies in every instance where people work for a gratuity: your hairstylist, valet, raft guide, masseuse or order-taker. Tipping at Starbuck's is no different than tipping a bartender or server at a traditional restaurant -- it's part of the package.

Granted, the coffee slave and the order-taker at Tortilla's both make a greater hourly wage than the average bartender or waitress. This simply means that you need not tip as much -- but tip you should. If you can't tip your hair-cutter, put a bowl on your head and cut your own hair. And if it hurts too much to cough up a few coins for the tip jar at Ben and Jerry's, then get your pint at the quickie mart -- still no tip jars there.

And consider this: a "stiffer" -- a customer who consistently stiffs folks working for gratuities -- winds up riding for free on the backs of others. The people who do tip (God bless 'em) are insuring the retention of good employees by offering a strong incentive to provide quality service in a comfortable, relaxing environment. When a stiffer enters Fellini's but ignores the tip jar (or, even worse, attempts to use it as a "take a penny, leave a penny" deal), his or her service is being subsidized by the other customers around them. A stiffer is just like my roommate's girlfriend who moved into our place, monopolized the TV, never cleaned, and never offered to chip in for rent.

What's more, the employees at any place where you see a tip jar are told when they're hired that they will be paid so much per hour, and can expect to make an additional what-have-you in tips. This money is not gravy, but is counted upon as a dependable source of income. It's similar to a salesman who takes a job for a base salary plus commission. The difference is that, unlike a commission, tipping is set up as an honor system. A stiffer is taking advantage of the system.

Finally, tips are an expression of thanks -- "gratuity" equals "gratitude" -- and consequently promote goodwill between customer and worker. Customers who tip feel good about doing so, and their actions put the worker in good spirits, too. It's kind of like sex: At its best, sex provides the opportunity for you to bring pleasure to a partner who, ideally, will do their utmost to throw a little cheer your way -- it's mutually beneficial. However, a stiffer is like the guy who engages in sex with the sole intent of climaxing in a minute flat, partner be damned. Both the stiffer and the frenzied fornicator fail to achieve a potentially higher level of satisfaction.

It's true that tipping is a way for employers to pass some of their wage responsibilities onto customers. Be that as it may, likely alternative courses are even less appealing. The employer can raise wages and start charging $5 for an espresso, or he/she can keep paying just-above-minimum-wage rates -- and you'll quickly find a pimply-faced 17-year-old with major attitude serving four-hour-old coffee in a lipstick-smudged mug. Good tips ensure good people working behind a tip jar.

As someone employed in the service industry, I must confess to having a financial interest in softening up as many stiffers as possible. Oh, I know how rigid most stiffers are; at most, I hope to have planted a seed in the back of some stiffers' heads so that, over time, as they find themselves continually thrust before the increasingly ubiquitous tip jar, they may eventually come around. Only then will former stiffers realize the joy that comes from releasing some of their liquidity.

Gordon Burke is a writer and coffee slave in Atlanta.

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10/30/2014

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