When stay-at-home orders forced many businesses to shut their doors overnight in spring of 2020 and left workers in the service industry in a complete lurch, many customers stepped up and tipped generously.
A lot of patrons started tipping restaurant staff even when they picked up their own takeout, which had been uncommon before the pandemic, says Ted Rossman, an analyst at CreditCards.com. "That really became more of a thing during Covid: realizing that restaurants and staff were really struggling, and, for a while, a lot of the country couldn't even eat in a restaurant."
Now that pandemic restrictions have begun to fall away, people are reverting to their pre-pandemic tipping patterns — which are often inconsistent and less than generous. In fact, tipping patterns in June 2021 were almost identical to what they were in 2019, according to a new survey from Bankrate. In some categories like restaurants and food delivery, the percentage of people who always tip their servers actually decreased by a few points.
"Even at sit-down restaurants, where I think tipping should be basically universal, only 75% [of people] are tipping all the time," says Rossman, who worked on the survey. "And then it just gets worse from there."
Only 59% of people always tip their food delivery driver, down from 63% pre-pandemic. And just 23% tip at coffee shops, versus 24% who did so in 2019.
The conventional wisdom is to tip a restaurant server at least 15% of the bill. But a lot of people don't really know many of the expectations beyond that, Rossman says — and the result is a lot of awkwardness.
"There's just so much confusion around tipping," he says. "There's so much discussion like, 'I don't know. Do I tip the furniture delivery guy?' or 'How much should I give my kids' teacher?' Or the mail carrier. Or the recycling guys. There's just so much confusion."
Etiquette experts have previously told Grow that it's better not to tip your children's teachers. Give them gifts instead, they suggest. It should also be noted that the U.S. Postal Service limits the monetary value of gifts that mail carriers can accept.
Part of the issue is the overall misunderstanding that tips aren't just rewards for good service — they are actually the primary sources of some service workers' incomes, Rossman says. The federal minimum hourly wage for most workers is currently $7.25, but for food service workers it's only $2.13.
Video by Helen Zhao
Eleven states have set their respective hourly minimum wages for tipped workers at above $10, according to the Labor Department. New York has gone even further, carving out increases for fast-food workers so that they earn almost $15 an hour. However, 17 states still rely on the $2.13 standard set by the federal government, according to the Labor Department.
"So many of these workers really depend on tips, and if they're not getting them, that has a huge effect on their bottom line," Rossman says. And "that has really been exacerbated during Covid."
The pandemic rejiggered the way we spend our money, often with positive effects: Because people stopped going out, their discretionary spending plummeted, and as a result more of them paid off credit card debt and padded their savings accounts.
Whether you're having your post-pandemic spa day or spending your first night in a hotel since 2019, remember that many of the people who work at those venues have had a rough go of it this past year.
And as more and more of the country has reopened and a lot of us are spending a lot more money traveling, eating out, and shopping, we should remember that our extra spending should carry over to giving extra tips as well, says etiquette expert Jodi Smith, president of consulting firm Mannersmith.
"As we transition out of the pandemic and venture out into the world again, it is important to reacquaint yourself with the tipping protocols," says Smith.
"For sit-down dining, the standard is still 15%-20%," she says. "For takeaway, the standard is still 10%-15%."
Video by Courtney Stith
Try to be understanding and patient with service workers, and not peg the amount you tip to speed of service, Smith adds. This is paramount right now as many businesses struggle with the growing pains of reopening and hiring staff to get to their pre-pandemic levels of operation.
"Your server should not be penalized for an industry-wide issue," Smith says. "Many stores and restaurants are understaffed. They are working hard and doing the best they can. For now, tipping should not be dependent on prompt service."
When in doubt, if you can, err on the side of generosity. "When you decide to dine out, you should tip to the point of pain," Smith says. "Over-tipping is the standard until we are back to business as usual."
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