Bozelko column: Tipping on takeout is patriotic
Columns share an author's personal perspective.
Indoor dining is facing some serious accusations lately - California, New Jersey and New York City are arresting their reopening plans because they fear that maskless maws are spreading COVID-19.
There’s another way to spell "the new normal." It’s T-A-K-E-O-U-T. We were relying on it during shelter-at-home times and now we will even more.
The best thing you can do for your country this weekend is order out - and tip what you would have left the server if you were in the restaurant.
I’ve never earned a monetary tip in my life, but I know the grimier side of gratuities. I worked as an organizer for the Working Families Party in Connecticut on its Women’s Economic Agenda, a lobbying campaign that would have jettisoned the "tip credit" statute that allows a sub-minimum wage for restaurant employees and expects customer tips to bridge the gap to the legally mandated hourly wage. Seven states have repealed their tip credit statutes entirely. New York repealed the tip credit statute for all workers outside the hospitality industry just this year, leaving servers vulnerable.
Surveying servers, I heard that the worst fate, by far, for them was to be assigned to the takeout counter where no one would tip, even though they were still earning the federal sub-minimum wage for waitstaff - $2.13 per hour. It’s a universal truth known among servers: No one tips on takeout. It’s an approved practice; the Emily Post Institute says tipping on takeout isn’t obligatory - maybe 10% for extra service. For pizza delivery, the etiquette experts recommend $2 to $5 total, regardless of price.
Our gratuity game in general has suffered during the pandemic. Consumers were baiting Instacart employees with big tips and then clawing them back, shorting their "shoppers." On social media, delivery people detail $2 tips on $75 to $100 orders, sometimes even $0 on contactless deliveries.
Servers deputized to the takeout counter don’t get any of the tips from delivery services like UberEats, GrubHub, Seamless and DoorDash. These companies were treating their drivers like servers and paying them less than minimum wage under the tip credit statutes. DoorDash backed away from it last July after a backlash, and Instacart changed in February. Now the entire gratuity goes to the driver - and no one else.
Whether stiffing the staff is inhumane or just inconsiderate can motivate debate; the reality is that in a majority of states the combination of tip credit statute and increased takeout/delivery orders may leave servers making less money than usual. An April Wall Street Journal article about how people make more collecting unemployment benefits than working focused on servers. A picture accompanying the piece was a woman handing over a takeout order.
That the more than 2.6 million servers in the country are either out of work or getting paid less is bad for the United States, a country where the late surges in infection rates are detaining the recent economic growth.
The easiest way to assure that everyone makes a minimum wage is to repeal the tip credit laws. Doing that in 43 states in short order is probably not feasible; it took four years of lobbying to get the state of Connecticut to modify the law slightly.
Short of nationwide legislative revolution, customers can make up the difference by tacking on the customary 15-20% even when they pick up an order. Former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren called using "all the tools we have to boost American workers and American industries" what it is: economic patriotism. Pushing a couple of bills into the jar on the counter is the new flag wave.
If having to pay a restaurant’s employees offends you, then maybe we should reconsider the entire tipped wage model. In the U.S. it started as a way for employers to shift the burden to customers of paying their formerly enslaved workers, the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, wrote last year in Politico Magazine. It enables sexual harassment, posits the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, and reveals our racist tendencies: Researchers at Cornell University and Mississippi College in 2008 found that customers at an unnamed national chain restaurant - even Black customers - tipped white servers better than Black servers.
But we like it, according to a study conducted by Cornell University’s School of Hotel Management. Tipping is more baked into this country than the cliche of apple pie - which is why most attempts at getting gratuities gone have failed in the past.
Things are different now. Surges and social distancing require restaurants to reinvent themselves. Along with that change, they have an opportunity to rethink servers’ wages.
If we’re not willing to change harmful, outdated systems by repealing tip credit statutes, then 20% to the person who prepares your order seems like a small price to pay to maintain this quintessentially American custom and float the economy.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.