‘Tipping culture is out of control. I was asked to tip 15% for a charitable donation’: When will it end?

The Moneyist published a letter last week, ‘I’m sick and tired of tipping 20% every time I eat out. Is it ever OK to tip less?’ asking whether people still had to tip 20% given the increase in prices over the past 12 months. Readers responded with questions, comments and complaints of their own.

Here is a selection of responses:

Dear Quentin,

Our tipping culture is out of control. It has become mandatory, and forced upon us. It has lost its cause. It’s not a gratuity anymore, it’s become another tax. Consumers are forced to help merchants to pay workers after paying merchants for the service. One time, I tried to donate money online, and was asked for a 15% minimum tip. When will it end? 

Reluctant Tipper

And this separate letter from another reader blamed the government and restaurant owners:

Restaurant owners and the government have gotten one over on the public with this perception that you are a low-class citizen for not tipping or tipping under 20%. First of all, the low-class people are the restaurant owners underpaying waiters and waitresses. The government is a low-class citizen for making it legal for restaurant owners to not pay minimum wage. 

If you believe the restaurant owner is responsible for paying their employees a good living wage then you should not feel guilty. I tip if the service is good but if the service isn’t good, I don’t tip well or I don’t tip at all. Don’t you think restaurant prices are expensive enough to pay the waiters and waitresses so as not to be dependent on their customers for a salary?

Feeling Duped

Dear Tippers,

We are being guilt-tripped into tipping by touchscreens in the supermarket, pharmacy, ice cream parlor, coffee shop and, yes, also general stores. The avalanche of digital tipping has taken its toll on customers who feel used and pressured into tipping when they’re already patronizing a store. But please: Don’t let digital tipping deter you from tipping waitstaff.

Unfortunately, the ones who end up paying the price appear to be service workers, who are on their feet all day and night, and who are among those workers who suffered the most during the pandemic through job loss and putting their health at risk. Feel browbeaten by being asked for a 25% tip for an $8 soft serve, but comparing that to wait staff is false equivalency.

Tipping does vary depending on where you eat. People tip an average of 17% in San Francisco and 18% in Seattle, to 20% in Cleveland, which is among the nation’s biggest tippers. That’s according to nearly 80,000 non-cash tips collected by Toast, a point-of-sale and management system company. People tipped an average of 14% for delivery or takeout.

‘Don’t let digital tipping deter you from tipping waitstaff.’

Digital tipping aside, you may be annoyed with the government for permitting certain states from underpaying their waitstaff and you may have a bone to pick — no pun intended — with restaurants for not paying their waitstaff what you consider a living wage, but I don’t believe this is a reason to punish service staff by not tipping or tipping poorly (definitions of which vary).

The average annual salary for waitstaff in the U.S. last year was $32,020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That works out at $15.87 an hour. However, 10% of waitstaff were paid $8.77 an hour in 2022, while 25% were paid $10.49 an hour. In some states, including New York, restaurants are allowed to pay less than the minimum wage if tips make up the difference.

Do you know who is probably less happy about that — even more so than customers who believe 20% is too much to tip? The waitstaff themselves. They work weekends, evenings and weekends, and must be answerable to the whims of their customers every minute of their shift. Dealing with the public can be trying at the best of times. Dealing with a hungry public? Let’s assume that’s worse.

Being reliant on tips puts customers in a powerful position, and they know it. Waitstaff have to jump when they say jump, and smile and be polite, and carry plates of hot food and drinks, and move at a swift pace lest they upset their customers, or cause them to declare that they are lazy and offering bad service. In other words, do anything that gives the customer an excuse to tip less.

‘Being reliant on tips puts customers in a powerful position.’

“Overall, 71% of women restaurant workers had been sexually harassed at least once during their time in the restaurant industry,” according to this report by One Fair Wage, a nonprofit that aims to end the practice of subminimum wages in the restaurant industry. Female restaurant workers are most frequently sexually harassed by customers, and also by managers and restaurant owners. 

“Tipped workers who receive a subminimum wage — this occurs in 4 out of 5 states — experience sexual harassment at a rate far higher than their non-tipped counterparts,” the report concluded. “Tipped workers were significantly more likely to have been sexually harassed than their non-tipped counterparts: over three quarters versus over half (76% vs. 52%).”

If you are upset with how the restaurant industry is structured, petition your local representative, ask the manager at restaurants you frequent if the tips are distributed to the waitstaff (and ask the waitstaff the same question). If you are asked to give a digital tip in a supermarket, it’s OK to decline if it makes you uncomfortable, but restaurant workers should not have to bear the brunt of that.

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The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

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