When, why and how much should you tip? New Yorkers weigh in.

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By Dan Sears

Should you tip for dry cleaning? Getting an ice cream?

Table of Contents

How much?

Are you tipping for great service, or because you suspect someone might not make a good wage?

If you’re confused, you’re not alone.

A Pew survey published in November found that 7 in 10 Americans feel they’re expected to tip in more places compared to five years ago, but aren’t sure about when and how much they should be giving.

Tipping has become especially confusing on delivery apps in New York City, possibly because of a new law passed in July that effectively raises delivery workers’ wages to around $18 an hour.

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Since that law went into effect, several delivery apps have removed the option to tip during the checkout process — an omission that has prompted some speculation.

In the Guardian, Wilfred Chan wrote that removing the tip prompt was a way for “the delivery bosses” to “reassert their dominance.”

WNYC’S Alison Stewart spoke with Kat Kinsman, Food & Wine’s senior features editor, about tipping: particularly whom to tip, how much to give and when to do so.

Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Stewart: Why do you think we’re having these conversations around tipping now?

Kat Kinsman: People don’t know the rules. Things are constantly changing, the nature of our interactions with people who work in service are changing. Practices vary from state to state, from household to household, and there are just so many more opportunities to tip.

I wish we could get rid of tipping altogether and just have people have a livable wage, but we are not there yet, hence the nervousness around the whole thing.

As soon as you said that, someone texted, “Scrap tipping altogether, legislate living wages for all.” What do these conversations about tipping reveal about wage issues?

Kinsman: I think people don’t understand that there is a minimum wage and then there is a tipped minimum wage. Say, for instance, in New York City, there is a $16 minimum wage. The way that actually breaks down, if you are a person who works in certain occupations in food service, only some of that is what you’re guaranteed per hour. The rest of it is basically the employer gets what is called a “tip credit” for it.

People are still taxed against what is assumed to be the full minimum wage, even if they’re not getting paid that entire amount.

A lot of people are brought up to think, “Hey, this is just for excellent service,” when, really, in some states, people are making as little as $2.13 an hour, and the rest of it is to make up that shortfall.

Jane is a shopper for Instacart and is calling from Long Island City.

Jane: I’ve been a shopper for more than two years. A few months ago, a customer let a shopper know that the base default tip that Instacart has set for the customers is only 5% of the order.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been letting my customers know about this in texts, while I’m shopping for them, and 99% of them did not know that. They said they’ve been using Instacart for years, they never realized that.

I went back to Uber Eats two weeks ago, and out of 37 deliveries that I did last week, five people added tips – no one is adding tips anymore.

Since they removed the tip option until after delivery, I’m texting saying, “Hey, don’t forget about me.”

One person said, “Yes, I hate that they removed it.” But I’m telling you, nobody tips anymore. They’re just saying, “OK, well, I got my food already, so why do I have to?”

Let’s break down a couple of different things that Jane mentioned.

Kinsman: I happened to notice on one of the apps recently, the default tip, which used to be anywhere between 20% to 30% or so, had fallen to around 10% or 15%.

Some of the apps are using that because they’re either doing a default minimum tip or they’re having the tip option after checkout because they’ve had to increase their fees to make this minimum wage.

They’re putting the onus on the customer to know all this, and then to follow up afterward.

Some workers’ advocates are saying that this is being done to punish the workers for having stood up and asked for a better wage.

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There’s the accusation that some of these apps are deliberately making the total seem smaller upfront so people might not necessarily notice that that fee has crept up – because they’re not seeing the tip on top of that.

I’m sorry that the onus has fallen on delivery workers to have to ask for that tip themselves. It’s up to those of us who do know it to spread the word far and wide.

It’s on you to go back into your app, to go into your email, to maybe have some cash by the door to be able to compensate people, because this work is work.

The conventional wisdom for food delivery is, at a minimum, $5 up to 20% and even more if it’s harsh weather. To your point, is there a pro to just tipping cash?

Kinsman: That is what the advocates recommend because then you are certain that the delivery person receives the entire tip and isn’t paying any percentage of it to the app.

We’ve gotten a lot of texts, so I am going to just read through a bunch of them. “I’m not fond of the tipping culture we have in the U.S. It’s gone too far. I feel like a bad person if I don’t tip for a cup of coffee or a takeout meal. Why is it my job to pay your employee’s living wage? Tipping should reflect the service you were provided. It’s not supposed to be compulsory.”

Here’s another: “As an older guy who used to work as a waiter, as well as a delivery driver, I tip whenever I can and definitely when I stay in a hotel for the housekeeping staff.”

And one more: “Now that taxis have extra charges, sometimes it’s $8 at the jump. What are we supposed to base the tip on?”

Kinsman: Oh, goodness. Cabs, I cannot speak to. But I can speak to the others. For a restaurant meal, you should be tipping on the total. I know there are arguments for, “Oh, double the tax,” whatever – no. Tip on the total. For a hotel, I default to at least $5 a day.

It cannot hurt to have cash on you. I’ve tried to default to that and get in the habit of having smaller bills on me. You’re never going to feel bad about having tipped. I’ve also talked with people about maybe being caught without cash and running back and giving the tip as well.

It’s interesting that someone said this is an American thing. Why is tipping such an American thing in particular?

Kinsman: It’s deeply steeped in racism. From the jump, it is a devaluation of the people who have service jobs. The people who work in service industry jobs, especially in restaurants, are often women, women of color.

Historically, this work has been undervalued and people have grown up with the notion of what something is supposed to cost.

We need to value service a little bit more than we do. I know that’s painful because so many people are barely scraping by themselves.

A lot of these jobs are seen in other countries as being an elevated form of work. This is a profession. I have so many friends who have been in service for such a long time. It is a skilled profession, and we need to see it as such.

Here’s something that I did not know until I started researching this. You should tip, even if you pick up your order, because it’s for the back of house, because outgoing orders disrupt service.

Kinsman: There is so much labor behind the scenes with a takeout order. It takes minutes to walk from place to place to assemble all of these things, make it secure, make sure it’s still hot. There is still work behind it, even if you’re not seeing it. It is still important to tip.

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Let’s talk about that tablet swivel. You order a coffee, you order a pastry. The tablet is swiveled around. Say, you decide to tip on this. Is it going to the person behind the counter?

Kinsman: We don’t always know, and it’s OK to ask. It is alright to ask about mysterious fees on your check. The thing is, it’s important not to blame the person who has to do the swivel. They’re being made to do that. They probably do not have an option for that.

I think it’s worth asking, especially if it’s a place where you’re a regular and you’re going to encounter this over and over again.

You want to be able to look somebody in the eye to figure out: Is that a tip that is pooled? Is that a tip that is going to be shared with the front and the back of the house? Is that a tip that is just going to have parties at the place? Is it a tip that is going to a fund that maybe is going toward insurance for workers?

It is OK to ask about those things. I know it’s super awkward, but as I always say, an awkward conversation isn’t going to kill anyone, especially if you’re approaching it from a really friendly point of view.

Are you OK not to tip someone if you order a black coffee?

Kinsman: I tend to default and do a dollar tip for that, or if I happen to have a single I’ll use that. I get awkward, and I was raised with a lot of guilt, I tend to default to tipping. I know a lot of other people are really distraught about that. We’re still trying to figure it out.

The other part of it, I think, is that everything is very expensive right now. People who follow me on Instagram know I do fancy coffee on Friday. You can get up to $9, before tipping, and then you’re like, “How did I just spend two figures on a coffee?”

Kinsman: Oh, absolutely. That happens to me if I get a sandwich. Sandwiches tend to be the thing where I think like, “Oh, I feel like such a jerk for getting this sandwich. I don’t deserve this sandwich. I was raised a suburban Catholic girl and I shouldn’t be getting these things.”

I think if I have the extra $2 or something like that, I try to factor it in there, but there’s always the nervousness and the angst around there.

Again, if it’s somewhere you’re going on a regular basis, I think it’s just good to know how those people are being compensated: with a tipped minimum wage or just a straight wage?

A few years ago, around 2015, there was a move to just get rid of tipping, all together, to have it included in the cost of the meal. Danny Meyer was on the forefront here in New York. Many of the places that did it, including his restaurants, reverted back to the old model after the pandemic. Momofuku told Eater that it “never really worked.” What happened to this push to remove tipping?

Kinsman: Well, in a lot of places, it’s illegal to pool tips. It works on a state-by-state basis.

Many service workers pushed against having a tip included because they felt that actually diminished what they could potentially make, especially at these places that are very, very high-end, where people are buying big ticket wines, all of that. They felt like it actually wasn’t working in their favor.

Also, the consumer base just didn’t understand it because we’ve been indoctrinated since youth that tipping is just part of what you do.

I’ve never really loved the notion that it’s to ensure prompt service. No, it’s not what it is.

There are people who get punitive, punishing servers for the food when it has absolutely nothing to do with the service whatsoever. This is emotional work in addition to being incredibly skilled labor. Emotional labor is labor. That should all be compensated, too.

I think it was genuinely confusing for people. Sometimes people would get nervous and then tip on top of that, which I definitely did at one restaurant.

I remember interviewing a restaurant owner who was against it. He said, “I’m at a price point where people will come in two or three times a week. If it goes up higher, people aren’t going to come in regularly or as often, and then that doesn’t serve any of us.”

Kinsman: Restaurant margins are so tiny, and often restaurants are portrayed in the media with splashy celebrity chefs, when the reality is: It is so hard to break even or make a profit when you are running a restaurant.

This isn’t greed on the part of the restaurant, it’s just that we’ve gotten ourselves into a corner over many decades where this is the model, and it’s going to take a giant cultural shift in order to change and to compensate the people who do these jobs.

We’re getting questions about tipping at bars … A dollar a drink, is that the deal?

Kinsman: I’d say $2 a drink.

As we wrap up this conversation, what do you want people to take away from it?

Kinsman: I feel like we need to all get past the awkwardness of all of this. If you have any doubts about where the tips are going, ask. You can ask things right to your app, honestly.

I know that sounds silly, but figure out where the money is going. Look up some of the advocates and their reasoning behind a change in these wages and how people can actually get them.

It’s never going to make you feel bad to tip well. I know people are not always in a position where they can do that.

And finally, don’t punish anybody with a tip. Taking it away or not tipping at all, that’s pretty terrible behavior and you’re essentially stealing services.

Err on the side of decency and you will never be disappointed with yourself.

And get cash if you can.

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