Sarah: Remember the before times, when Friday night meant a restaurant reservation or perch on your local patio, watching the world go by. It was a welcome escape from whatever it was you wanted to escape back then. As communities nationwide emerged from their government mandated shutdowns, restaurants are inviting patrons back in. There are sign in sheets to allow for contact tracing. There are rules about wearing masks indoors. There are tables spread at least six feet apart. It’s a whole new world for diners, yes. But also for restaurant staff. They’ve gone from being out of work to being frontline workers. And diners are not exactly blowing the bank on a night out anymore. That 18% to 20% tip? It’s looking a lot more like 12% to 15%. Like many facets of our lives, the pandemic has highlighted some real existing problems in the hospitality business. For many in the industry, tipping is just one of those problems. But why is this so problematic? And what would it look like to get rid of tipping once and for all? I’m Sarah Boesveld, sitting in for Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Joining us today is Hassel Aviles, co-founder of Not9to5, a Canadian nonprofit that empowers hospitality workers by connecting them with resources on mental health and substance use. Thanks for being with Hassel.
Hassel: Oh, thank you for having me.
Sarah: So many restaurants in Canada now, you know, the ones that survived the months long, shut down, maybe just, you know, sending out takeout orders, filling those, now they’re reopening. What has this meant for people who actually work in these establishments?
Hassel: I mean, it honestly is a huge question because it impacts people on so many different levels from, you know, your emotional health, your mental health, your physical health, obviously, and the safety around all of those things. But then in addition to that, there’s obviously, you know, the impact that it’s had on everyone’s financial health. And I think that it’s meant a lot of things. I think that being out of work caused a lot of reflection for people. And in an industry where you don’t normally stop to reflect, let alone even take breaks, you know, it’s problematic because it’s meant that people are now back at work with a new perspective. You know? This pandemic obviously has had an impact on everyone, but in an industry where there’s been so many issues, of archaic principles that have been passed down from one generation to the next, when you have had time to all of a sudden have this mandated closure where you’re not working and you have time to stop and look around and reflect on your financial situation, your mental and physical health, and what’s going on, and then you start reading about what else is happening around the world, and then all of a sudden from one day to the next you’re considered an essential worker, I mean, it has a huge impact on people. And like I said, it’s really on every level.
Sarah: Yeah. So it sounds like it’s kind of a whole new world that restaurant staff and people who work in kitchens and so on are reentering, as restaurants are opening their doors again. What does that look like? Just from basic things like how they’re having to move through the restaurant and the space, and interact with customers, and be safe?
Hassel: Great question. So, I am– just to be super transparent, I’m not actually a server anymore, but I was for close to decade. But I grew up in this industry, so I’ve worked in it and around it for at least 22 years. And so I’m very much, you know, I have a massive network in the industry in Toronto and here in Canada. And so, I have checked in with a lot of different levels of this industry from front of house, back of house and all the roles in between those two. Parts of this industry– plus ownership, I’m friends with a lot of owners, and managers. So when I’m answering this, I’m really answering it based on the dozens and dozens of people that I speak to on a regular basis and have checked in with over the last couple of months. It’s been excrutiatingly difficult, on so many different levels. So, acknowledging for all humans, it’s a global trauma and we’re all in a collective grief, right? From the pandemic. But above and beyond that, there’s a lot of people, obviously, that are living in a crisis within a crisis within a crisis because of a lot of the racial reckoning that’s happened in the– you know, increased awareness around the Black Lives Matter movement, so for Black Indigenous People of Colour, there’s that going on. Plus for hospitality, you know, we’re literally watching our industry crumble. And when you start to do the math of the decrease in sales, you know, there’s less customers coming to dine, even though now patios are open, it’s still not the same. It’s not like we’ve reopened to what once was. It’s a different world. And then, in addition to that, you know, everything has decreased really from average customer check, to a percentage of tips that people are receiving. You know, so owners are under a lot of tension and stress, and management feels that, and it just trickles all the way down to the, you know, the entry level workers. And that’s really difficult because in an industry where we were already considered one of the most marginalized sectors of society, and a very vulnerable population, now we’re also living during all of that, that once was, plus now in a pandemic. So it’s a really difficult time and everyone is stressed. And although, you know, what would really help is for people like management and ownership, to be more understanding, patient, and compassionate, that’s not necessarily always happening.
Sarah: Yeah, the stress of even just basic survival is looming, right? I mean, and so, let’s talk about tipping, then. That’s– you mentioned that that has changed for some folks who are working in restaurants. It’s a fundamental part of restaurant culture, right? Like here in North America, the idea you get good service, you tip like 18%, 20%. Or if it’s not up to your, whatever subjective expectations, you would do less than that, or not at all. But I’m curious to know what’s happened to servers’ income, mostly based on tips, but otherwise too, as a result of this pandemic.
Hassel: Yeah. So I appreciate that question. And I love, you know, the idea of even checking in on that because oftentimes, you know, this gets very overlooked. But from everything that I’ve seen, I mean, to be clear, I’m not dining out on patios personally. I obviously have friends that own patios and I’ve definitely walked by them, but I haven’t actually been a consumer myself yet. But, you know, from what I hear from my friends that are working service, and from what I’m seeing, even personally, even just by walking by, it’s a different experience, you know? And I think what’s not really talked about enough is that you’re not reopening what once was, you’re literally reopening a new business. Everything is different, from menu, to service to, I mean, you know, even having to wear a mask for 10 hours, for example, or a visor or whatever, you know, PPE is, you know, being used. Everything is heightened, in terms of, you know, the tension or stress or anxiety that people are feeling. But the thing with tipping is that it has a problematic history, you know? It really does. And I don’t know if a lot of people listening even know that, because for a long time, it just wasn’t something that was common knowledge. But you know, and often times I’ve heard it referred to as quote unquote, like the legacy of slavery. There’s a really troubling history. There’s a really troubling history related to the tipping practices. And that’s not just for, you know, the US, it’s Canada too. And so when you start to look at the implications of tipping, and this has been written about, like people can– if they’re interested in learning more on their own time, I highly encourage you to Google, you know, tipping, slavery. Time magazine did a full, very in-depth article last year about this. And that’s actually the tagline. It’s the legacy of slavery.
Sarah: Wow. So can you tell us in sort of a capsule what that legacy is then? The connection between, you know, deciding how much to give someone for their service and slavery?
Hassel: Yeah. And like, people don’t think about that, right? Like you don’t go out when you’re dining and think about this, and I’m fully aware of that.
Sarah: I can’t say I ever have thought about it in those terms. Wow.
Hassel: Of course. Right. And I totally understand that. I wouldn’t expect that to be the most common thought that goes through your mind. But it encourages— so, here are some points from that article, and then I’ll give you some other additional points from another recent post that I thought really summed it up quite perfectly. So in that– there’s also an eater.com article about this as well. And it also covers this concept of the connection and the really troubling, problematic, you know, roots of tipping in the US and in Canada, and really just like it’s history. So tipping encourages racial profiling. There’s a lot of servers when they started to analyze how much, for example, white or Latinx, or Black, or Asian people were making an hourly tips, you can really see a difference. And so it reflects and amplifies racial inequality as well. The way that someone may express themselves, may make a certain consumer feel a certain way and so they’ll tip according to that. It widens opportunity gaps between, you know, white servers and nonwhite servers. And you’ll see that in all levels of service, from fine dining, fast food, to even just casual service. Here’s another point that doesn’t connect directly to slavery, but is extremely problematic, is that it fosters high sexual harassment rates in the restaurant industry. And so as a woman, I can speak to that personally. And you know, anyone that’s ever been a bartender behind a bar knows all about this, that identifies as a woman or is a woman. And I feel that, you know, the flirting thing comes in, the low cut v-neck shirts come in, the, you know, hot red lipstick comes in, and sadly equals higher tips. So it really can cause problematic behaviour. It also encourages worker exploitation, because a lot of this industry isn’t regulated by the government. So we have, for example, I’ll speak to Toronto on this. We have Toronto Public Health, obviously, that goes by restaurant to restaurant checking in on temperatures and all these different other safety, physical safety and food safety protocols. But they don’t really have anything like that in terms of like how workers are being treated and how their mental safety is being, you know, projected, or not projected in most cases. And so that causes a lot of violations of wages. A lot of restaurants actually collect tips and then distribute them internally. And so sometimes there’s a lot of fear around the transparency of how that’s being distributed. And there’s a lot of times, and even though it’s illegal to obviously pay, you know, quote unquote the house, a percentage of the tips, I know for a fact that that still is a practice, unfortunately, that even though it’s illegal, it still happens.
Sarah: So it’s not enforced at all.
Hassel: Well, I mean, I guess your accountant could rework books in certain ways, right? And if tips are in cash, it’s really hard to prove, you know, every check by check by check. I mean, obviously these days, I will say, the fact that things are going through card more is a good thing because there’s more of a paper trail, right? So that’s actually a good thing if you think about it. But you know, here’s the thing. I guess what I want to really touch on, though, is I’m not at all claiming that we need to abolish tips like tomorrow, because I’m very aware of the fact that in order to do that, there’s a lot of things that would need to change, and that take a long time. And just to speak to, again, I can only speak to where I live, but in Toronto and Ontario, Canada, the livable wage for Ontario to live in Toronto is $22.08. That was a 2019 number. The previous year before that $21.75. So that’s not necessarily what all servers make. And again, not even just to speak to servers because tips really affect everybody. In lot of restaurants, tip get distributed to the kitchen as well. So it really does affect– this conversation is not just for servers and hostesses and bartenders and front of house staff. This conversation actually does impact the entire business model as a whole, because tips do find their way and trickle down into all corners of the business. And so because of that, you know, I’ve been mostly speaking about servers, but to be honest, it also impacts cooks, chefs, dishwashers, you know, basically anybody that in some way or another is impacted or gets any kind of percentage of the tips.
Sarah: I’m really glad you mentioned that too, because a lot of businesses have had to do take out only to survive through, if they did decide to stay open and so on. And it’s not like the cooks are getting much in the way of tips when someone just picks up a bag, or it’s Uber eats, or something like that, right?
Hassel: That’s exactly right. And it’s really- you know, here’s the thing. I also am very aware of the fact that right now, in a pandemic, you know, with so much uncertainty in terms of jobs and pay and you know, people are struggling. And so it’s hard to be like, Oh, I need to, like, now also think about giving like this extra percentage of tips, you know? It’s just, it’s difficult. What needs to happen is, you know, and I’m not at all insinuating that this happen today during this time of uncertainty and the pandemic, but as a whole, the industry does need to work in the direction of abolishing tips, because there’s more problems with it than benefits, you know? And I haven’t even spoken on the fact that, you know, it really has such a massive impact on people’s mental health and their financial literacy. And the direct connection between those two things, your financial understanding and your financial situation has an impact on your mental health and vice versa. There’s a really direct connection between those two things. And not knowing what you’re going to be making on a regular basis, it prevents you from planning. It keeps you in a certain spot, you know? And it’s very problematic for a lot of servers too, when they go and have to claim EI or are out of work because your earnings quote unquote on paper leave you in a really vulnerable position to be able to prove what you were or were not making. And a lot of restaurants don’t provide, or even cafes, hotels, bars, like I’m talking all hospitality outlets, not just restaurants. A lot of them don’t always provide a paper trail of the tip breakdown. Like the good ones do, obviously, and a lot of the fair ones do, but many, many, many don’t. And so that becomes really hard when your EI is calculated on a percentage of what you were making.
Sarah: So the idea of abolishing tipping or moving towards it, I guess, is there an opportunity here to really make moves on that? Because everything is so influx? And you did point out that maybe like right now is not amazing, while people are kind of in survival mode, but what could this start to look like? And how could we move towards arriving at a living wage for people who work in hospitality? And moving towards a place where we can pull back a practice that has roots to slavery, as you educated me on today, which I had no idea? You know, where do we start?
Hassel: Yeah. So. I love that question. And thank you for asking it because I think fundamentally the first step is just to acknowledge that that’s the direction we need to work towards, right? So again, I’m under no illusion or in no way am I saying, Hey guys, restaurant owners, cafe owners, bar owners, like you need to abolish tips tomorrow. That’s not at all what I’m insinuating. What I’m suggesting is that that’s the direction we work towards. And so baby steps towards that make a big difference. We need to understand also there’s a lot to learn about human behaviour and making changes. And you know, the change cycle, there’s a change cycle. If you Google change cycle, there’s a lot to learn there and how that works. It’s not a linear process. So, you know, it’s the whole idea, if you take three steps forward five steps back, seven steps forward, 10 steps back. That’s going to happen and that’s normal and natural. And there’s a lot of emotions that happen at each stage of the change cycle. So these things are going to take time. It’s not going to happen tomorrow. But little things that can be done to work towards that. I think reevaluating how tips get redistributed and have it be a little bit more quote, unquote, fair for all staff members, and that includes kitchen staff, because you have to understand, too, for a long time there’s been a lot of quote, unquote rivalry or resentment between front of house and back of house because you’ll have back of house come in hours before front of house shows up, and stay hours after front of house has left, and yet make less money. So that has been happening for so long, and it, over the years, has created all kinds of problems. But over time I’ve heard of a lot of really great businesses that– and not just in Canada, but even around the world, that has started to really reevaluate business models and become much more innovative and creative with how that gets redistributed. And the thing, is in order for that to happen in a way that works well, because I also– like, you can Google Danny Meyer in New York city who did start this, and there was so much pushback, much controversy. The thing with– when tips get abolished in the end, if that ever happens, and I hope that it does, it really needs to be regulated by the government and enforced at a higher level. It cannot be left up to the industry to make a voluntary choice. It just doesn’t work. And so the only way that that will ever work is if everyone’s doing it, because if only one location does it, or 10 locations do it, it just, you get outnumbered. And then it just becomes kind of the wild wild West, which it currently is already, cause of the unregulated industry that it is. But as soon as things start to be mandated, government mandated, then you don’t really have a choice. And then you can start to see the benefits. And you’ve already seen this in, for example, Australia and parts of Europe. And so here, what would need to happen is more conversation and communication as to why this change needs to happen, you know? And it can’t just be like, Oh, we’re doing this cause we’re doing this. It needs to be explained as to why we’re doing this. And also understood that getting there is not going to be easy and it’s not– you know, there needs to be this like really constant communication that happens between your team, so that it’s very well understood and that everyone’s on board. It can’t just be something you’re just slapping onto people and forcing them into. So I think little steps that can be done or yeah, like redistributing the percentages, increasing the level of communication around this topic. I think also making sure that it’s being done for the right reasons, you know? And that there’s conversations, not just about tipping, but also just overall team morale and overall psychological safety and overall concern for the whole entire team to be in a better place, because in the end, everybody wins when that happens. Cause this conversation actually does touch on so many other parts of the business.
Sarah: Does it ever.
Hassel: Yeah. And I think for too long, it’s been looked at as a numbers thing and I’m like, yes, it is a numbers thing, but it’s also an emotional thing, it’s also a mental thing, it’s also like a physical thing. Like it– yeah.
Sarah: I’m glad you mentioned emotional, too, because I tweeted about this awhile ago, maybe last month, and I was surprised to– just kind of posing the question, like, is it time to get rid of tipping? And I had some– and actually this is because my sister, who worked in the service industry, sort of posited this idea. And I had, you know, people who’d worked in hospitality for years respond and say tips are how I make my money, and how I survive, and how I kind of show my prowess at work and all of that kind of thing. And it reminded me a lot about sort of power structures too. Like if you are benefiting from a system, you’re not going to want to change it. So that’s interesting to sort of talk about thinking about it in a more collective return on investment for the entire business, the entire industry kind of thing, right?
Hassel: That’s absolutely right. And that happens every time this conversation comes up. I always, always hear that. And not just me, like I’ve heard owners have dealt with that when they’ve tried to make positive change for the overall workplace culture and business as a whole, that pushback always happens, like you said, from the people that are benefiting from the system that’s in place currently.
Sarah: Well, and that’s like, it’s amazing, like how emotional people get too, because people think they’re just going to go sit down and have a meal. And for that person entering the dining room or the patio in this case, enjoying their meal, you know, there’s kind of a curtain between them and a lot of these issues, right? And so to get the public to think about it a little bit more is a real challenge too.
Hassel: Oh, absolutely. So that’s another thing that I unearthed in a lot of research that I’ve done on this topic, is that the other connection to this that we haven’t covered yet is the connection— the involvement of the consumer, that you just brought up. Cause I think that that’s such an excellent thing that sometimes gets overlooked. And the fact is that, you know, we underpay for the quality of food that we eat, period. You know? And that’s problematic, you know? And it presents a real dilemma for customers that don’t want to pay for food– and not just food, frankly, because it’s an entire experience, you know? Right now, as it stands as an industry, as a society, and I’m speaking now for all North America, not just Toronto, we aren’t paying for what it actually costs. You know, there was a series of articles written, I think it was about a year or two ago by Cory Mintz, where he broke down each dish as to what each dish costs, and he considered infrastructure, labour, you know, supply chain, everything. And a lot of the dishes were in the red. So consumers are not actually trained or properly educated on what dishes actually cost. And that leads to the other side of it, which is our industry has not done a very good job of educating consumers on this, right? And, you know, how the whole food system works, and how it’s all, you know, unfortunately not being paid for in what it actually costs. So, you’re right. It requires change on all fronts. And I think at the end of the day, one thing that I always say, and it refers to this topic as well, is that for too long, we’ve been focusing on the ethical treatment of the ingredients of dishes, you know, and that speaks to the sustainability or the impact on the environment and all of that. But there has not been enough conversation on the ethical treatment of the people that are producing, cooking, and serving food.
Sarah: So, because we’re heading into the weekend with this episode and because it sounds like advocating this work, doing this work is a lot, it’s a lot of work, you probably find some self care and in food and sort of connecting with that part of your life. What have you been eating or making during this pandemic to kind of care for yourself?
Hassel: Oh, I love that question. Thanks for asking, Sarah. I’ve done a lot of cooking. Like I said, I haven’t really been dining out, so I’ve done a lot of cooking and baking. I have two daughters and they also love to cook and bake, and particular dishes, I mean, I’m not gonna lie, it’s been a lot of comfort food. But as well, obviously, trying to balance that with as much fresh fruits and vegetables as possible. But some favourites include the classics, like cookies and cakes and that kind of thing. But we’ve also dabbled in– my parents are from Chile, and I grew up eating empanadas. I dunno if you know what those are, but yeah. So we’ve definitely done that. And a lot of like really nostalgic dishes from my childhood too. You know, like, there’s another dish from Chile called pastel de choclo, and I ate that recently and it just injected me with joy. It injected me with so much joy.
Sarah: What’s that like? I’ve never heard of that dish.
Hassel: So it’s corn based and you basically– it’s almost like, think of it as a different version of Shepherd’s pie, except, you know, how on top Shepherd’s pie has like either mashed potatoes, those are sweet potatoes or some kind of potato? And then the meat and some people have vegetables, some people don’t. This has corn on top. And so instead of the potatoes, you have the corn and, this is the even further interesting part, is that in Chile, some people eat it as like a savory thing and they add more salt or they spice it up or whatever. And some people even add icing sugar and turn it into a sweet thing, which sounds really weird, cause you’re talking about meat and vegetables and corn, but don’t knock it til you try it.
Sarah: It works. Ah, that’s so inventive and also so nimble. Hassel, thank you so much for walking us through all of this. I think people listening to an episode about tipping maybe thought it would be a little lighter than a lot of these intersections, but I think that’s– sometimes you’re surprised and in ways that are really valuable. So thank you.
Hassel: Oh my God. It is my pleasure. Honestly, thank you for having me and, you know, by no means, am I an expert on this topic, I’ve had to learn a lot in the last couple of years, myself, and I really encourage people to do their own research. And please look further into all of this.
Sarah: Hassel Aviles is co-founder of Not9to5. That was The Big Story. For more from us, you can visit our website, thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can also follow us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN, and you can write to us to let us know what you think or tell us what you’d like us to tackle in a future episode. Email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m Sarah Boesveld, have a great weekend and I’ll talk to you Monday.
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