TIPPING is a hallmark of dining out in America. But it is controversial. The gratuity system ensures that it is the diners who determine a server’s pay. Those who support the practice say it rewards dutiful service; others call it capricious and argue that a professional server’s wages should not be discretionary. They maintain that the price of a good—in this case, a meal—should encompass workers’ pay. Some in the industry contend that working for tips enables a culture of harassment. Female servers may tolerate inappropriate behaviour by customers just to earn a living. Efforts to raise the minimum wage, aided by #MeToo, have focused attention on the perceived inequities of tipping. A movement is afoot to correct them.

Tipping originated in feudal Europe. It disappeared there, though not before arriving in America in the late 1800s. Some employers took advantage of the practice to shortchange employees. The result was a two-tiered pay structure for tipped and non-tipped workers. Under federal law, tips belong to front-of-house staff, such as servers and bartenders. They earn a lower base pay than back-of-house staff, like cooks and dishwashers, with tips covering the difference. So while the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, it is $2.13 an hour for tipped workers. (Employers must fill the gap if tips fail to do so.) Seven states—Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington—have ended the two-tiered system. On Tuesday, residents of Washington, DC, voted to do so as well. Michigan and New York may follow suit.

Some restaurant owners have gone further and eliminated gratuities altogether. Their goal is different, and more ambitious, than removing the tipped minimum wage. They aim to erase pay discrepancies between servers and cooks. As operating expenses have climbed due to the rising costs of food, energy, and rent, menu prices have gone up. Servers’ pay, tied to tips, has thus increased by the highest percentage among restaurant employees. The disparity has made it hard to attract talented back-of-house staff. Under a no-tip system, servers and cooks are paid a set hourly wage as determined by the restaurant owner.

Both proposals on the table mean higher menu prices, to offset increased labour costs. But a broadscale end to tipping will be the greater challenge. Some restaurants have tried, only to reverse course later, having lost customers appalled at the new prices and servers deprived of the tip windfall. The roughly 200 restaurants that have banned gratuities are mostly in the fine-dining category, where pricier dishes are less likely to deter patrons. Michael Lynn of Cornell University found that a casual chain of restaurants that eliminated tips at some sites saw reviews on Yelp for those spots drop by a third of a point on a five-point scale. Reviewers complained about the higher tab; the chain reinstated tips a few months later. An American tradition looks likely to endure.