How Much Should You Tip During COVID-19?

Photographed by Megan Madden.
The U.S. is an outlier when it comes to the enormous number of places where tipping is expected — restaurants, bars, coffee shops, food delivery, hotels, taxis and rideshares, hair salons, massage spas, the list goes on and on. It’s a controversial system, because many believe that minimum wage should be guaranteed to all workers, not dependent on the whims of customers. Though proponents of tipping culture say that it incentivizes good service, historically, it’s a relic of feudal Europe and was widely adopted in the U.S. as a way to preserve a racial caste system after slavery was outlawed.
With COVID-19, we’ve seen how this tipping system has contributed to much of the economic instability of hospitality and service industry workers. It’s why there have been calls to tip more generously during this time, if we can, and for services we might not have thought to tip for before. But what does that exactly mean? Typical etiquette for a sit-down restaurant, for example, once advised adding around 15-20% of the price of your meal, but it’s not like there has ever been a hard and fast rule. People grow up with different perceptions and opinions on what’s appropriate. One survey conducted by TD Ameritrade found 18% of respondents never tip waitstaff. Another survey of over 2,000 Americans by found that millennials are much more likely to not tip at all than boomers — but when they do tip, they tend to leave bigger tips.
With so many industries on the brink of ruin, have the unspoken rules on tipping changed over the past year? What services and businesses are people tipping for these days, and how much feels right? Ahead, Refinery29 readers  weigh in on how tipping habits have changed for them and their social circles.
Becca, 22, Massachusetts
“Before the pandemic, I would always tip 18-20% depending on service (and how easy the math is). I would not tip when I would pick up takeout, because I had figured if I was picking it up and they had people in the restaurant, they were getting tips. Now, I’m consistently trying to tip between 25-35% depending on the service and job. And I always tip for takeout. I recently tipped my hairdresser 45%, because she had not been working at all.
“It makes me sad when people go out and tip less especially during a recession, because if you can afford to eat out, you should be able to afford an 18-25% tip, regardless of your server. They are risking their lives to work, and a majority of their income is tip-based.”
Tory, 29, Arizona
“I’m a bridal stylist, and I received a tip from one of the brides who came in recently, which is totally out of the norm. I make an hourly and commission on sales so a tip is not necessary. But it was very sweet of her! I’m also an aesthetician, and I’ve seen no increase in tipping amounts.”
This is a hard time for everyone, and I don’t think customers need to compensate for the employers’ poor salary. I’ve always tipped 20% for any service, which I think is very good. When you subtract what the company makes, you’ve probably just doubled their hourly, which anyone should be thankful for.”
Andi, 38, California
“I haven’t really changed my tipping habits, because I haven’t really changed where I use services that take tips. I prefer to pick up my own takeout, and shop for groceries in-store. When I pick up food, if I’m paying cash I tell them to keep the change. If I’m paying by card I usually round up to a certain amount.”
I was fortunate enough to have the chance to dine in at a restaurant for my birthday, as we opened up for about two weeks before shutting down dine-in again. My friend and I left a generous tip. I’m sure those servers needed the boost. I feel like tipping should be an option and based on merit, and should be more like an extra bonus for the server, not something they rely on to make a decent base pay.”
Brendan, 33, New York
“I increased my tipping substantially. I usually tip around 12-15% for good table service. and 15-18% if the service is amazing. Since lockdown, I started applying that same amount to delivery people (as opposed to a max of about 3 bucks). My reasoning is that those people should be compensated handsomely if they are willing to go out into the public and risk contracting COVID-19 because I wanted a burrito at 2 a.m. I increased my tipping for pickup orders similarly.
My friends are almost all ex-hospitality workers of some sort, and all of us increased our tipping because we know how hard those jobs are. I used to work in the restaurant business (a lot of my friends still do) and those workers are in a feast-or-famine scenario. New York state law currently allows employers to satisfy minimum wage requirements by combining a ‘cash wage’ paid by the employer with tips that the employee receives from customers. This means that all food service workers are at minimum wage if they are not receiving tips.
Also, with so many businesses struggling to survive, I made the moral decision to stop using delivery services like GrubHub/Seamless/Uber Eats. I learned that these services take rather large cuts out of the restaurant profits, which only hurts employees down the line. Instead, anytime I want to order something, I will call the restaurant and see if they deliver and if not, I will do pickup. And I try to tip in cash if I can. Depending on the restaurant, cash tips are not always reported as income, and they can essentially become worth more. This isn't exactly legal, but it’s a very common practice in the industry, so I try to tip in cash when possible.”
Haley, 27, Massachusetts
“I didn't always tip at counter-service restaurants (like if the cashier is just grabbing something as opposed to preparing the food themselves), but I do now. I tip way more, especially for delivery or people working in businesses where they're probably putting up with crap from inconsiderate customers. Before I'd usually tip a delivery driver 15-20%, and I'm tipping closer to 30% now. And if I ever witness someone giving a food service worker a hard time, I'm sure to tip extra. I would have so much anxiety going to work in such a public setting right now; I feel like it's the least I can do to make it worth their while.
I worked as a barista at Starbucks around the time they launched their mobile ordering and witnessed my tips go way, way down as a result — with the app, it's so easy to opt out of tipping and not have to face the person making your drink. So I'm always sure to add the tip to my order there. The opportunity to tip comes after you've placed your order (with your receipt), so a lot of people miss it. I'd imagine a lot of mobile order apps work similarly, so it's something to be aware of!
I found out that my boyfriend regularly tips a lot more than I do! I'm on a strict budget and usually stick to a 20% rule of thumb when dining out/delivery but less at coffee shops, etc, but he makes more and has always tipped at least that much everywhere he goes.”
Jess, 20, Somewhere in the Midwest
“I usually grab a drink a couple of times a week at Sonic through the drive thru, but usually didn’t tip. Since the pandemic, I’ve started tipping a dollar here and there since it’s an inconvenience on their part, and to thank them for putting themselves on the line, even if it is just a small tip. Based on the price of the product or service I would tip 10%+ where I usually did not tip before. I’ve gone out to eat a few times, mostly patio seating, and have tipped 30% or more depending on where I’m eating and what I got. Before the pandemic I would usually do 20-22%, since I stick to a tight budget most of the time.
When eating out the other day, I overheard two people talking about how cute they thought their waiter was, and they said they were going to leave a good tip. But they each only left him... $5. I guess we all have our own definitions of a good tip. I think I may be more judgmental since we’re in a pandemic, and I would think everybody is trying to tip more fairly.”
Sara, 24, New Jersey
“I usually did 18%, or the classic double-the-first-number equation. But lately, especially when restaurants first reopened, I’ve been doing 20% or more. My social circle has been very open and mindful of tipping habits. If I pick up the bill to later Venmo request others, I always state how much I'm leaving, and it's never a problem. But I make sure to say, ‘Imagine being on the other side of this, the lack of work they've endured the past few months.’ Luckily for me, there hasn’t been judgment or arguments.
Give your delivery people cash! So many people forget to leave it on the app, or on the app the default is 15%, which could equal pennies or less than $5. These people are physically traveling from point A to point B, usually in less-than-ideal weather.”
Emily, 28, New York
“I tip for takeout now, which isn't something I used to do because… there's no service component. But now, pretty much if there's a tip option anywhere, I do it. I also regularly tip Lyfts/Ubers now, which isn't something I used to do before unless they were tremendously nice or it was an airport ride.
I feel like, as someone who's been able to keep their job and has in fact been spending a lot less money — meaning I'm more financially secure now than I probably would have been before — it's my social responsibility and duty to tip and share the wealth where I can. That said, it makes me feel weird when I get bad service. This happened on Sunday at a place on the Upper West Side, but I still tipped 20% on a very mediocre breakfast with poor service (normally, I probably would've tipped 15%). I resented that I felt like I couldn't not tip as well for bad service. And then I felt like a dick for feeling that way.”
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