Trouble With Tip Jars

Tip jars frighten me. Those adorable “leave-a-penny-take-a-penny” dishes have grown up and begun reproducing. Star Trek could update its “Trouble with Tribbles” episode. There’s trouble with tip jars.

I paid for my college education by waiting on tables when minimum wage for tipped employees in Illinois was $1.10 per hour, so I’m a fan of tipping. But I worry what started as a good idea has become an enabling crutch for too many business owners.

Bartenders have always been tipped, so it followed that baristas would be rewarded for that beautiful extra swirl of chocolate syrup embellishing the tiny layer of foam atop a double espresso tall skinny mocha. Special skills are on display. Dropping coins in a jar makes sense. Clapping with a hot drink in your hand would be risky.

But now I see a tip jar beside almost every cash register. I order a beer or a burger or a bagel and a tip jar dares me to ignore it. The hand-written placard sits there on the counter like a miniature version of a stop-light panhandler. The cashier gives me change and I freeze. I wonder if he’s wondering whether I’ll pocket the coins or give them back. What I’m really wondering is what a tip would be rewarding, since the food or drink has not yet been delivered.

I fear that in some instances the tip is rewarding — no, enabling — lower wages being paid to more people. It’s never made clear exactly what becomes of the coins and dollars put in the jar. Is it divided among all the employees working at the time? Is it used to augment the pay of the cashier only? Does management handle the accounting, after keeping a modest portion for their trouble? It’s not clear.

Greg Bryant, who recently closed The Tango Center downtown, was philosophical when I shared my quandary with him. “The only difference between wage slavery and chattel slavery is that one is temporary.”

Would my coined contribution be abetting wage slavery? Is it a donation? A subsidy? A voluntary tax?

I believe we should be given opportunities to be generous with one another. Lane County is home to more non-profit organizations than there are days in a year. I like living among so many people for whom money is not their prime objective.

Carol Berg-Caldwell recently asked on this page whether the cost of opening more jail beds might be defrayed with voluntary donations. Shelly Bosworth last month asked in a letter to the editor whether a fund could accept donations from people who use the streets around Crest Boulevard, but don’t happen to be among the lucky property owners being assessed to cover the cost of the upgrades.

Many of us attended benefit concerts for Curtis Salgado to defray his medical expenses after he was diagnosed with liver cancer. Local banks regularly set up funds to accept donations to help local residents faced with sudden tragedies.

But what do we do when a bookstore holds a benefit for itself? Or when a dance center closes because it couldn’t make ends meet? Does my obligation to the business extend beyond buying books or taking lessons? Maybe it does, but I’m not sure. I need help.

Voluntary payments can drive a small economy and you can see it in action this weekend at the Oregon Country Fair. In fact, I remember when I first understood I was witnessing a different sort of economy. I was in line for a Springfield Creamery ice cream, something only available at the Fair. The fellow ahead of me ordered ice cream with strawberry topping. The tab came to 25 cents more than he had. In the “real world,” he would have lived without the 50-cent topping and enjoyed his ice cream. Instead, he asked strangers in the line behind him if anyone had a quarter. Somebody did.

Most people at the Oregon Country Fair are not wage earners, at least not this weekend. They do what they do for the love of it, or for whatever people will pay. It’s a busker economy and it works. Many participants look forward to the impromptu barter fair that happens spontaneously each year, as vendors consider packing out some of the same stuff they packed in.

What you won’t see at the Oregon Country Fair is many tip jars. I asked Norma Sax, who has been the administrative assistant for the Fair for over a decade. She paused. “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one,” she told me. “But ask Sue Kesey. She’s on the Food Committee. She would know.”

I called Kesey, co-owner of Springfield Creamery. Is there a rule forbidding tip jars? “That’s funny,” Kesey answered, “I never thought about it. I do see jars around the fair, but they’re all taking donations for the Jill Heiman Vision Fund. I don’t think anybody is keeping any of that money.”

The Jill Heiman Vision Fund has fueled the philanthropic arm of the Oregon Country Fair, granting over $100,000 to hundreds of community causes over the past decade. But is there a rule about tip jars at the Fair?

“If there was a rule, it would come through our committee,” Kesey said. “And I can tell you for sure. It’s never come up.”

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.