Has Tipping Changed Because of the Pandemic?
The answer is yes. And no. And both exactly what you'd expect and nothing like you'd expect.
When I was in college, I worked as an intern in Illinois Senator Dick Durbin’s office. My job was to answer calls and record constituent concerns, which we’d then share with Senator Durbin’s office to address with his staff.
I don’t need to tell you about the horrific and racist events that have taken place over the last few weeks. If you’re reading this, please call or write a letter to your representative or senator about enacting gun control laws. I can’t promise that folks look at these letters now, or that phone calls mean anything these days—I truly don’t know. But I can say from my own experience that we reported every single concern a constituent called in, and that these issues were at least on the docket of Senator Durbin’s staff.
In truth, I think gun-control laws are only the beginning of the change we need. (It’s also worth acknowledging that these laws have themselves been used to target Black people, and in the past prevented members of the Black Panther Party from arming themselves.) We continue to live in a militarized state fueled by fear and racism—today’s post addresses a different aspect of that—and it can be hard to know where to begin when struggling towards a better society and a better future. Small actions can at least feel like a meaningful way to start, and to reclaim some measure of control.
Over the last few weeks, during nearly every commercial break on the streaming platforms I was using, I saw an ad from Domino’s Pizza.
In the clip, customers are encouraged to “be their own delivery drivers” by picking up their pizzas rather than getting them delivered. Domino’s incentivizes this by offering $3 to be used on future orders, likening the cash bonus to the tip a delivery driver would receive.
As I watched and thought about this ad over and over, I found myself following a stupidly optimistic train of thought. In movies and television, tipping is usually portrayed as contentious, awkward, and even acrimonious. As a kid who waited every holiday to receive the next season of “Friends” on DVD, I remember one scene in Season 3 when Ross and Rachel go out to dinner with Rachel’s father, and he only tips 4%. Ross tries to sneakily leave an additional tip, and Rachel’s father is furious. I believe the viewer is supposed to think Ross is meddling and that Rachel’s father’s behavior, while arrogant and rude, is ultimately harmless:
Tipping is a practice that’s deeply embedded in our culture, and is ultimately designed to subjugate others. In the United States, tipping became a way to pay newly emancipated Black workers less (or no) money for their labor. Tipped labor is still one of the only sectors where we allow people to receive less than the federal minimum wage. Only seven states require tipped employees receive at least minimum wage, and in other states, tipped workers can legally be paid as little as $2.13 per hour. As Michelle Alexander writes in the piece linked above: “The practice of tipping allows a work force that is close to 70 percent female and disproportionately women of color to be paid a subminimum wage.”
Perhaps that’s why tipping is often portrayed as fraught: by its very nature, it’s about reinforcing racist power dynamics. But as I watched that Domino’s ad, I felt like the commercial spoke about tipping in a positive way, encouraging the customer to put themselves in the role of the delivery driver and imagine what it’d be like to work for tips. For a brief moment, I even thought Domino’s was attempting to raise the topic in an effort to draw attention to the work of tipped laborers.
But then my partner Jesse reminded me that Domino’s is experiencing a huge driver shortage, and that this ad is simply encouraging more people to pick up their own pizzas to make up the shortfall.
I’ve been thinking a lot about shifting attitudes towards tipping after my recent conversation with Valorie Clark, a member of the nonprofit organization GoFundBean. (While this episode is live on my newsletter feed, I believe there was a malfunction and it might not have made it to your inbox, so give it a listen if you haven’t yet.) GoFundBean began as a response to the effects of COVID-19 on service workers: Early in the pandemic, while stuck at home or after being laid off from their jobs, hundreds of coffee workers started virtual tip jars to make ends meet. GoFundBean initially served as an aggregator of those fundraisers, and enabled folks to search for and donate to tip jars in their local areas.
But Valorie and the team at GoFundBean soon noticed something interesting happening:
Because what was really fascinating that was happening was that the entire cafe staff was making tip jars together. Sometimes it was the boss making it and putting it up on the website and sometimes it was [the employees] coming together and using their social media to say, “Hey, we’re raising money for all of us,” which was cool because I think it could have so easily gone a different way of people being very individualistic about it, but it was a very collective moment of, “We’re all in trouble. We’re all hurting, we’re all raising money.”
As I listened to this, I was deeply moved by the spirit of camaraderie.
And then I wondered: Has the pandemic changed our tipping habits permanently?
So many coffee workers posted information about their tip jars on social media, and with the current wave of unionization efforts—both in coffee and outside the industry—I wondered if customers might be more cognizant of the importance of tips (an optimistic viewpoint) or if they were simply being confronted with the reality of tipping and couldn’t pretend to look away any longer (a slightly pessimistic view). Or maybe (most pessimistically) customers are now extra resentful about tipping, and feel more emboldened than ever to be assholes about it.
I asked folks on Twitter if they’d noticed any changes in their workplaces, and the range of responses was interesting. Some said that tips were slightly higher; some said they were lower; some were able to parse out differences based on demographic information and past history. Some reported that those who always tipped were tipping more, and tended to skew younger, while those who never tipped were just continuing the same old bullshit.
I did a bit of research on this. An article by Saahil Desai for The Atlantic tracked tipping patterns using data from the point-of-sale platform Square, and found a modest rise in average tips per ticket: a 19.9 to 20.1% average tip pre-pandemic versus a 20.6 or 20.7% tip as of when the piece was published last year, in June 2021. The article also found that customers were more likely to tip on takeout and delivery orders post-pandemic: “Going by these numbers, people bothered to give a tip for only about half of all such orders before the pandemic started. By May 2020, though, that proportion had risen to more than 75 percent—and it hasn’t stopped going up. Last month, at least 84 percent of these transactions included a tip.”
One of the respondents on Twitter pointed out that they were less likely to receive tips when customers were frustrated, noting that many patrons felt angry about enforced mask requirements. Incidents of customer abuse and assaults on retail and food-service employees have continued to rise throughout this period, with some workers reporting that customers are acting more brazenly than ever before, fueled by a mix of frustration, deteriorating social skills, and political normalization of bad behavior. As I write this, the San Francisco Chronicle is reporting that a customer at a mall food court threw a drink in the face of an employee for overcharging them—and then refunding them—25 cents.
I think this is an important thing to note: Tipping is almost never about the service one receives, but much more about how a person feels at the time, and how much context they’re able to take in about the world around them. I remember a co-worker of mine sharing that the day after the 2016 presidential election was one of the worst days he’s ever had to work—customers came in feeling despondent and angry about the outcome, and acted accordingly.
What has changed since then is workers themselves: Many feel more able to stand up to both customers and employers, and to take ownership of their spaces. So while a stupid Domino’s commercial made me weirdly optimistic that big companies talking openly about tipping could represent a positive sea change, ultimately I learned that, for every uptick that’s happened recently, employees—especially the most marginalized, with the least power and resources—are receiving the brunt of our collective angst, and are suffering as a result.
This article was supposed to be about the continued practice of tipping, but as I wrote it, the unbearable happened—again—and it’s made me reconsider the framing of this subject as not one isolated topic but as part of a constellation of societal burdens that ordinary people are forced to bear, seemingly without recourse or improvement or relief.
Anne Helen Petersen said it better than I could, but it feels like we’re stuck in the same fucking cycle over and over. I’m not saying the links below will be of any help, and as Petersen notes, while nihilism is understandable, it is a “a rotten and dangerous way of viewing the world.” It’s hard to confront what feels insurmountable, but it’s worth trying: