Americans have long been fatigued by tipping. Then a pandemic pushed our distaste for this custom to the side to help restaurants and workers survive.
A Maryland reader called my toll-free line 1-855-ASK-POST (1-855-275-7678) seeking advice on this matter. “I wanted to know your thoughts on tipping if you’ve just gone to pick up carryout food,” the woman asked. “Usually, you tip for service, and in this case, there was no service. They put the food in the bag, and then they had you pay for it.”
The average gratuity is about 20 percent when you are served your meal at a restaurant. (15 percent is no longer the default for sit-in dining. And if you’re going to tip 18 percent, why not round it up to 20 percent?)
The tipping etiquette for takeout is not as clear.
Many merchants use cashless payment devices that default to a takeout tip ranging from 15 percent to 25 percent. If you want to leave less, you often have to navigate to a “custom” tip option with the cashier staring at you while you do the math. It can feel very awkward if you decide not to leave a tip.
There is so much wrong with the American system of tipping.
Where once tipping may have been a reward for superior service, it is, in reality, a diner tax used to guilt-trip patrons into supplementing workers’ wages.
Tipping is rooted in racism. It was used to avoid paying newly freed enslaved people a fair wage.
It can be sexually exploitative. Women dominate serving positions, putting them in perilous positions in which their earnings are determined by their appearance. Think of restaurants where the uniform for female servers is more suited for the beach. I’ve heard from female servers who were told by managers that if they dressed more suggestively, showing more leg or cleavage, the bigger the tip.
Here’s yet another concern about tips tied to wages. What people earn is unpredictable because it relies on the generosity of their customers.
There is a lower minimum wage for people who receive tips. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 per hour. If a server’s tips, when added to wages, don’t add up to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, the employer must make up the difference. Workers can earn more if the tips they receive boost their earnings above the minimum wage. Several states require employers to pay tipped workers a minimum wage well above the federal level. In Alaska, the state minimum wage before tips is $10.34. In Washington, it’s $14.49.
Even with states raising the minimum tipped wage, the racial divide is exacerbated, with restaurant workers of color experiencing higher poverty levels than White restaurant workers, according to the nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.
“Restaurant workers, a majority women and disproportionately workers of color, continue to bear the brunt of the pandemic,” the organization said in a report released earlier this year.
Yet, feelings run deep against the practice of tipping for carryout. Consumers, like the caller, argue that the takeout service they received — packing their food to go — doesn’t merit a gratuity.
Ideally, in a fair-wage world, pay isn’t left up to the tipping whim of customers. You order a sandwich, and the cost includes everything it takes to hand it over to you.
I wasn’t always a fan of tipping, but when the pandemic exposed the frailty of the restaurant industry, I put myself in the shoes of service workers. I no longer quibble about whether I should tip for takeout, sometimes giving much more than 20 percent.
You can take the moral high ground fuming over what companies should pay their workers, but until tipping is eradicated in favor of a high enough minimum wage people can survive on, be as generous as you can afford.
You can support higher minimum wage laws for service workers better while helping them where they are now.
Rising prices are making it tough for people to afford rent. The cars they need to purchase to get to their jobs cost considerably more than they did a year ago.
Even with takeout, you are getting a service when a restaurant staff cooks your food, wraps it up, and prepares it for your pickup. If you begrudge them a few dollars, go to the grocery store, pick up the ingredients for your meal and cook at home.
If ever there was a time to be kindhearted, it’s now. It’s when inflation is at its highest level in 40 years. It’s when service workers are exposed to a public still carrying the coronavirus.
That extra dollar or two in the tip jar isn’t going to break my budget or yours. But your gratuity — even for carryout — can make the difference in someone taking home enough money to put enough food on their table.
Michelle Singletary on inflation and personal finance
If you have a personal finance question for Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary, please call 1-855-ASK-POST (1-855-275-7678).
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