Earning enough to live on should not depend on tips


“TIPS TURN WORKERS INTO BEGGARS.” That’s Mary Brown’s story. And she’s sticking to it.

Mary worked as a “liquor server” in Quebec for years. She never made the minimum wage. She was paid a much lower minimum wage approved by the province to cover all “tipped workers.” Doing a good job did not guarantee she could make ends meet. Only getting enough tips did.

Sub-minimum wage allowed

Ontario and British Columbia only recently stopped allowing lower minimum wages for tipped workers. Quebec, however, still has a “Tipped Minimum Wage” $2.85 an hour lower than the General Minimum Wage of $14.25 an hour

Mary Brown is now an organizer with One Fair Wage, a national organization of over 300,000 service workers in the USA working together to end all sub-minimum wages in the United States—something all workers in every province in Canada already have, except for Quebec.

There are two federal minimum wages in the United States: $7.25 for untipped workers, and $2.13 for tipped workers. The One Fair Wage campaign seeks to eliminate this two tier system and require all employers to pay the full minimum wage, thus lifting millions of tipped and sub-minimum wage workers out of poverty. Seven states have already enacted One Fair Wage legislation and ended the sub-minimum wage.

More than a little precarious

Blanca Limon cleaned 11 rooms during a recent shift as a housekeeper at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square—emptying trash cans, making beds, cleaning bathrooms in one of the most expensive cities in the world—and got exactly $3 in tips.

She’d never seen it like this in her 27 years as a housekeeper. Gone were the days when she could count on tips of $1 to $3 in nearly every room she cleaned.

Having to depend on tips to earn a decent living makes life more than a little precarious—what makes it worse are the uncertainties surrounding who gets what and who decides on that. Every workplace is different: everything from employers confiscating all tips, to an uneven and possibly unfair division between servers and kitchen staff, to an open and fair system approved by all.

Unions help

Unions can and do make a difference. The UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) recently got the Fairmont Chateau hotel in Whistler B.C. to repay $85,000 in gratuities it withheld from workers in its banquet department.

Banquet workers contacted the union for help in 2018, after Fairmont management rolled out a new “tipping structure” that confiscated 20% of the tips given to banquet workers and gave them to managers.

“These workers tried in vain to address the issue themselves. But they couldn’t make the employer listen or obey the law. That’s when they called us,” says Patrick Johnson, Secretary-Treasurer of UFCW 1518

Johnson adds that while Fairmont Whistler’s wrongful withholding of tips had real life consequences for the workers, the luxury hotel faced no penalty for violating employment standards. “Without serious repercussions for breaking our labour laws, employers will continue to abuse non-unionized workers. That’s why UFCW 1518 will continue to push for enforcement, and fight for fairness for all workers.”

Employer theft of gratuities is still only illegal in four provinces: British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador

Tip theft the norm

The odds of a tip ending up in a server’s pocket can actually be “shockingly low,”says Julia Marciniak, hospitality and tourism coordinator from UNITE, Tipping by cash is still the best way to help ensure staff actually get to keep the money, shesays

She said: “From my own personal experience, in only two out of 12 places I was employed I got all my tips.”

She said a recent survey carried out by her union showed only 40% of staff received cash tips left by customers, but that dropped significantly when it came to credit card tips and service charges.

Marciniak said work is still needed to ensure staff get their fair share—and she believes the workers themselves should decide the tipping distribution policy in their workplace.

But without a union, workers who depend on tips are left hoping their boss is one of the good ones ready to be fair.

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