Rethinking Tipping: Advocating for Fair Wages and Consumer Empowerment

What is “tipflation” and what can be done about it?

Short Story (TL;DR): Tipflation refers to increased expectations for people to tip more frequently and at higher rates than in the past. This has led to backlash as customers feel overwhelmed by the increased pressure to tip. Some are hopeful that a shift towards higher wages for service workers will reduce the necessity of tips.

The Rise of Tipflation

Over the past four years, tipping culture has changed drastically — some feel for the worse. More businesses are introducing gratuities, which is causing more than two-thirds of Americans to feel disillusioned with tipping culture. But how did we get to this point?

Tipflation describes the increased rates people are expected to tip for goods and services. Many touch screens will start at 18% or 20% and can go up to 30%.

This phenomenon coincides with another one called “tip creep”. Gratuities are popping up in more industries beyond traditional service jobs like wait staff. Cafés, delivery drivers, grocery stores, and even self-checkout kiosks are suggesting customers leave a tip.

Changes in technology and the rise of digital payments have accelerated this shift. Order kiosks and tablet systems with default tipping options make it easy for businesses to prompt for gratuities, even for minimal services.

Drawbacks and Inequalities of Tipping

Tipflation can disproportionately impact low-income individuals and those who rely heavily on services. Many consumers are feeling burnt out, and have admitted to “guilt tipping.” They feel pressured to leave a tip, especially if the employee is watching them or is close by.

The rise of gratuities can contribute to broader inflation, since rising prices causes the cost of a tip to increase as well. This can exacerbate existing income inequalities and lead to reduced spending in other sectors of the economy.

Also, reliance on tipping may discourage businesses from raising base wages. This can create a cycle where workers are dependent on gratuities to make ends meet. It can also discourage investment in employee training and development, ultimately hurting the quality of service.

Pandemic’s Impact on Tipping

The COVID-19 pandemic led to many businesses like restaurants to close, or implement restricting guidelines like social distancing. Some places turned to third-party delivery services like DoorDash to stay afloat. Customers responded by being more generous with their tips.

This gesture was meant to show support and appreciation towards struggling service workers and small businesses. Now, employers have turned to gratuities as a way to retain workers while keeping their expenses low.

Empathy for Service Workers and Consumers: Balancing Fairness and Cost

This discussion needs to consider the challenges faced by both service workers and consumers. For example, drivers are the backbone of the service industry, ensuring timely deliveries. While their wages often rely on the unpredictability of tips, advocating for fairer compensation is crucial not just for economic reasons, but also to recognize their essential contribution.

However, empathy shouldn’t be limited to service workers. We must also consider the consumer experience. They are already paying full price for the products, including any inflation costs, and then additional service and delivery fees, none of which directly benefit the service worker.

The question arises: is it fair and cost-effective to burden consumers with a 15% – 30% price increase based solely on their order value? While companies are entitled to charge for their services, adding further fees on top of existing ones can feel unfair to consumers and potentially deter them from using the service.

Instead, a more balanced approach could involve:

  • Transparent pricing: Clearly communicate the total cost upfront, including breakdown of product price, service fee, and delivery fee. For example, clearly explaining the distribution of the fees. How much do service workers receive?
  • Exploring alternative fee structures: Consider models that don’t penalize consumers based on order value, such as flat fees or tiered fees based on distance.
  • Ensuring service worker compensation: Decouple service worker wages from tipping and guarantee a fair base pay, potentially funded through adjustments to product cost, service, or delivery fees.

By considering the perspectives of both drivers and consumers, companies can create a more sustainable and equitable ecosystem for everyone involved.

Change is Coming (Hopefully)

Recent legislative changes in Seattle and New York signal a potential shift. Seattle’s new law, effective January 2024, mandates companies like DoorDash to pay drivers a minimum wage before tips. DoorDash’s response, paying $26.40 per hour and adjusting fees. In New York, similar legislation requires Uber, DoorDash, and Grubhub to pay a minimum of $17.96 per hour.

Tipping is a complex issue with no easy answers. By understanding its causes and impacts, we can make informed decisions about tipping and advocate for a fairer system.


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