The tipping point

How wrong assumptions about service industry work can ruin great service

The days are getting shorter and that record-breaking hot July has turned into an average August. The beat that tourism brings to the province is slowing, so summer must be coming to an end soon. Those patio day-boils and evenings downtown without a jacket are feeling less comfortable and soon you might even be able to get a table at your favorite restaurant without making a reservation three weeks in advance.

The tourism season and service industry go hand in hand in Newfoundland and Labrador. However, with the increase in construction and natural resource projects that require accommodations for workers, and with students from away attending Memorial University, we all know that there’s plenty of people moving about year-round. Many establishments stay busy year-round, and service industry workers are the ones who make this possible.

When we tip service industry workers, we’re not just saying “thanks for keeping my water topped up.” Nor is it an act of charity. For me, tipping has become a bit of a political act, which stems from my own experience. I feel that anyone who has waited a table (or cleaned a toilet for a stranger) might understand. But experience is not a prerequisite for being a great customer who tips appropriately. Some behind-the-scenes information and basic conscientiousness is all you need!

Behind the scenes

I’ve worked in and around the service industry throughout my early 20s, and as with all jobs there were things I loved that kept me happy, and other things I found stressful. I have worked as a housekeeper in 4-star hotels, and I’ve worked as a bartender in a lodge. I’ve worked as a server, a cook, a dishwasher and I have had the opportunity to manage a bed and breakfast. I loved the fast pace that prevents boredom, I loved talking with people and I loved working with coworkers who became close friends.

But there were hard times, too. An example that comes to mind is when the management of one hotel I worked in constantly sold out rooms without scheduling nearly enough front line staff to ensure the rooms would be ready on time. People got injured, workers’ children got stranded due to unscheduled (yet “mandatory”) overtime, and a whole lot of pressure to be a “team player” made for a toxic environment. None of these positions paid much above minimum wage (if at all), and each had its own norm for receiving tips.

Having worked some other low-paying jobs outside of the service industry, I used to feel apprehensive about the whole “accepting tips” thing. When I was starting out, I could not accept them as graciously as I was able to give them. I used to think: “Why should I get more money? I am providing quality service because that’s what I was hired to do, and I’ve agreed to my wage.” I know lots of customers think something similar when facing with their own dilemma of whether or not to tip, especially after receiving sub-par service.

Of course, a few more hundred hours of work later, and I became an expert at graciously accepting tips from contented guests and clients. These days, although I’ve moved onto other lines of work, I have decided that for myself, tipping an appropriate amount is an important part of how I experience these services.

 Employers can follow the [Labour Standards] Act to a tee, and still end up with an overworked and underpaid crew.

Service industry work would not exist if it weren’t for a culture based on mass consumerism. If we’re all going to be piling into bars, staying in hotels for comfort and convenience, and enjoying food that we didn’t grow and prepare ourselves, we might as well go all out and pay for all aspects of this consumption: tipping included. Operation of service industry work is centered around the customer – before the customer even arrives. Most positions involve being on-call to some degree, or having split shifts. If things are slow, shifts get cut. That constant availability, and always sacrificing your holidays, weekends, and evenings to work is what this industry relies on.

Service industry work is unique and deserving of tips in a few ways which aren’t visible to consumers. First of all, the difficulty of the work is underrated. Being on your feet for many hours, working shifts that go against the body’s circadian rhythms, and heavy lifting in small, fast spaces will certainly take a toll on physical health. One could argue that that alone would be worth your wages. But service industry workers are also expected to provide exemplary customer service at all times. Many employers will preach “the customer is always right” and many customers will take advantage of their opportunity to be “always right”.

Many service industry workers experience verbal abuse and sexual harassment from customers all day long, and not everyone has a manager or coworkers willing to support them in those cases. Most service industry work in Newfoundland and Labrador is not affiliated with any union (yet!), which means workers are at the mercy of several factors: unpredictable customer interactions, their managers, and the joke that is the Labour Standards Act. That’s right: I feel the provincial Labour Standards Act as it stands today is not conducive to a healthy lifestyle. Employers can follow the Act to a tee, and still end up with an overworked and underpaid crew. In this sense, service industry workers are some of the most vulnerable workers due to the nature of the industry.

Industry trends and dead ends

In Canada, 58 per cent of accommodations and food service workers are female. This aligns with the trend that women are less likely to be promoted and employed in higher paying jobs, and the fact that women occupy most low-wage positions in all industries (women represent 60 per cent of minimum wage earners, while occupying less than half of all jobs). Societal expectations for behaviour are extremely gendered. For women to behave politely, accommodatingly and unthreateningly, and for men to maintain an assertive, powerful and tough presence definitely play into these statistics.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that many service industry jobs are a dead end. There’s little room for advancement, and even supervisory positions have low wages and are likely to have the same duties as the rest of their team. There’s also pressure on the government to lower the minimum wage for certain types of service industry work, and this differential wage has already been put into legislation in provinces like British Columbia and Alberta. And, shamefully, business leaders have pushed for it – so far unsuccessfully – several times in this province too. If that trend catches on, service industry work is going to get worse before it gets better.

Tipping as a responsibility

Someone has to do this work, right? For the foreseeable future, we will need people working in the service industry. There’s no doubt that it’s a line of work that would be much more attractive for job seekers if workers were better compensated. Don’t get me wrong: it would be great if employers and governments ensured better stability for people who work in the service industry. In this case, establishments vary in their ability to compensate staff. The bistro owned by the chef down the street probably has less financial flexibility than the Delta Hotel, and thus, no two service experiences will ever be alike.

If you enjoy going out to dinner, or staying in hotels, or even having a scattered pint, it’s your duty as a customer to play an active role in the service worker-customer relationship. Great service is part of the appeal when it comes to this type of consumerism, so it makes sense to factor it into your budget. These jobs are low-waged for a reason, and it doesn’t have as much to do with skill level as you might think, as evidenced by countless servers out there with graduate degrees.

So much of service industry work exists because of economic inequality and the consumerism that drives it. If you appreciate quality service, tip the hard-working people providing those services so they have a reason to stay and continue providing them. Contrary to the stigmas attached to service industry work, it could really be a satisfying field if talented people could afford to stay in it. Tip according to what you personally deem appropriate, but for goodness sake – don’t refuse to tip based on assumptions about the job.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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