The 20% Doctrine

For years I believed that tipping service staff was a “reward” for good service, good food, or a good experience. In 2003 I was shocked to discover that the federal tipped minimum wage was $2.13 an hour. After that I started being more careful to always include some sort of tip, even if service was terrible. But the fundamental idea that “tipping” is an add-on remained with me.

Nearly 20 years later, the federal tipped minimum wage has not budged from that absurd number. But the COVID-19 pandemic has made it more clear than ever how essential and how under-compensated service workers are.

My first job out of college was in IT support, and I made $17 per hour. On days when I solved a complex technical problem for a VIP and saved the day, I made $17 per hour. On days when I made mistakes or messed things up, I made $17 per hour. On days when I was feeling cheery and friendly, I made $17 per hour. And on days when I was feeling crabby or distracted, I still made $17 an hour.

Over time I learned, grew, got better at my job, got promoted, and got pay raises. When I did well I was praised, and when I did poorly I was given a stern talking to. But never once did it cross my mind that having a bad day would result in me getting paid less, or not at all.

For service industry staff, that is the reality every day, and it is absurd. Leave aside whether the waiter or bartender or Uber driver does a good job. There are a hundred things out of their control, like the kitchen being backed up, bad traffic, or someone else making a mistake. And yet we compensate people in these positions based on the idea that they have control over everything that happens.

Workers should be paid fairly for work performed. The idea that the customer should have any control over that just does not make sense to me anymore. If you are dissatisfied with a service experience, you can talk to the manager. If you are sufficiently upset, you can stop patronizing the establishment, or leave a bad review. But I no longer believe it is morally justifiable to deprive anyone involved with the transaction of their livelihood.

So here is my new philosophy on tipping: I don’t.

So here is my new philosophy on tipping: I don’t. I do not believing in tipping as a concept any longer. I believe we should pay for service, and if service is not included in the price of goods, it should be included as a service fee. And if the service fee is not a line item on the bill, it is my responsibility to provide it anyway.

What is a fair and reasonable service fee? I think the market has spoken, and made it clear that it is 20%. So I have started adding my own 20% service fee anywhere I see a tip line. It has felt weird at times, and it certainly makes things more expensive than I am used to, but I think it is the right thing to do.

When I order at a table I leave 20%, regardless of the level of service I receive. When I order from a counter, or visit a buffet, I leave 20%. Coffee shop? 20%. Order ahead and pick up? 20%. DoorDash? 20%. Taxi ride? 20%. Once you start seeing the 20% service fee as a standard cost, everything becomes simpler and less stressful.

Surely there are exceptions? Not really.

Surely there are exceptions? Not really. When I go somewhere that adds on a service fee of any amount, I do deduct that from the 20% and leave the remainder. So if a restaurant has a poorly explained and unadvertised 3% service fee for employee benefits, I get briefly pissed off about the subversion, but then leave 17% as a “tip” to make the service fee what it should actually be. And when a delivery service includes a service fee that I know goes to the driver, I will deduct that. But in general I just default to a straight 20% and call it a day.

What about exceptional service, stirring conversation, free appetizers? Shouldn’t I, the customer, have the right to reward a server for their sparkling personality or pretty smile? In a word, no. I still leave the necessary and correct 20% service fee, same as always. But if I am feeling generous or grateful, I will add on a bit extra, and let myself feel like the patron of a quaint European cafe where service cost is included but Madame or Monsieur sometimes leave a few extra euros on the table to show their gratitude for the excellent espresso.

How do you tip these days? Have you reconsidered at all, in light of the pandemic and everything that has been happening? I have found since adopting the 20% service fee approach that I feel better, lighter, less stressed about tipping. Give it a try and see what you think!

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