The past, present and future of tipping and tipped workers in Seattle

Did you know it was once a misdemeanor to leave a tip in Washington state? 

Long before there was a tip line on your credit card receipt and the nagging internal debate between leaving 15% or 20%, there was a whole anti-tipping movement, and advocates in Washington ranted against what they called the moral failing of tipping.

In 1909, they managed to pass a law that made it illegal to tip. The law, which lasted until 1913, was mostly laughed off as tipping continued unabated. 

The law may have died, but the controversy, the moral questioning and the legislation around tipping is still a noisy conversation today as U.S. society continues to debate the fundamentals of tipping: Who gets tipped and why? How much do you tip? Is tipping demeaning? How much should tipped workers get paid?

Today, Washington state and Seattle have some of the best laws in the U.S. when it comes to protecting tipped workers, but the practice of tipping has an ugly beginning and a rocky past. As service industries (where most tipping happens) continue to be shaken up by the pandemic, and as the emerging gig economy raises new questions, the future for tipped workers is ripe for change and some new experiments. 

A legacy of slavery

It all begins with slavery, of course — slavery and the great American obsession with cheap and free labor. 

Travelers brought tipping back to the U.S. from Europe in an attempt to show their sophistication. The practice was met largely with disdain and didn’t really catch on until George Pullman, the founder of the Pullman sleeping car, found a way to make his railroad sleeping car service more enticing to his customers by hiring personal attendants. 

After the Civil War, Pullman hired exclusively Black men and women, most of whom were formerly enslaved people from the South. His problematic reasoning was that they were essentially more servile and suited to service work, but he also was eager to take advantage of their desperation for work and the racist attitudes toward Black Americans that would allow him to pay them minuscule wages. 

To earn a living, these porters and maids relied on tips from customers, which often meant enduring disrespect and working more than 100 hours a week.

“The uncomfortable history is that [tipping] is rooted in race and gender. It’s essentially a legacy of slavery,” said Kim England, the Harry Bridges Endowed Chair in Labor Studies at the University of Washington.

“Freed former slaves found it really difficult to find work and this economic desperation meant that they were more easily exploited than other workers,” England said. “White [employers] could pay very very small amounts of a regular wage, even no wage, and say that Black folks needed to work for tips.”

England stressed the importance of remembering the Pullman maids along with the porters. The maids were responsible not only for cleaning the sleeping cars, but also for intimate domestic work such as doing customers’ hair,

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