Ask The Salty Waitress: What Are The Rules For Tipping In A Pandemic?

Hello Salty Waitress!

I appreciate your column especially for guidance on tipping etiquette. I have a disagreement with a housemate on tipping etiquette when we go to pick food up directly from the restaurant, during the covid-19 crisis.

Where I live (California), restaurants are pickup/delivery only right now. My stance for pickup in "normal" times is to avoid tipping a significant amount for pickup, unless some sort of special service comes with it—a special box/utensils, curbside pickup in the rain, etc.

My stance is that preparing the food and potentially exposing yourself to covid constitutes a special service. For this reason, I feel comfortable tipping fully (20%).

One housemate's stance is that we have a moral obligation to support food service workers during these trying times, when tips are not otherwise available. Under this rationale, they feel that a 20+% tip is reasonable.

Another housemate's stance is that because there is no service, tipping is not warranted. At the same time, they might feel more comfortable tipping if the restaurant explicitly asks to be cognizant of the effect on the waitstaff.

Could you help us sort this all out?

Much appreciated,

Confused in California

Dear Confused,

Finally, an etiquette question worth returning from my vacation for! "Vacation," by the way, is what I'm calling camping out on the recliner in my living room rewatching all of Chris Hemsworth's movies and sewing homemade masks for a few bucks a pop. It's not as lucrative as waiting tables, but since there aren't tables to wait on these days, it's something to do.

This is what being a server looks like right now. If you're lucky, maybe you've been able to pick up a few hours here and there. But everything you've ever known about how to do your job well is out the frigging window, replaced by totally new procedures that your boss has been making up on the fly, because he's just following the orders of city and state officials, and they're just trying to make up new rules based on what the CDC is saying—on and on. It's a game of telephone that no one signed up for. And if you don't adapt to the new normal at lightning speed, guess what? You lose.

But you know what else is out the frigging window, sweet pea? Salty's typical rules about tipping on takeout orders. Back in a simpler time, when my bunions were smaller and my restaurant's dining room was bustling, I said that the tip depends on how much work was done to prepare your order:

If they had to assemble the order and bring it out to your car, like curbside delivery, then that probably deserves some kind of tip. Or if they had to leave a busy dining room to pick up the takeout in the kitchen, put it in boxes, assemble forks and drinks and all that, maybe throw in a gratuity.

Now, though, there's no "maybe" about it. There's no busy dining room that these employees are abandoning to bring you your takeout: that's all the serving they're doing these days, because that's all the dining you're doing these days. And so the rules of dine-in etiquette now apply to takeout, curbside pickup, and delivery. Plus, while some restaurants are sharing their profits equally among the staff right now, you can bet that some folks are still making a server's minimum wage, at best, for fewer hours of work—that is, a wage that depends on tips to bring it up to something like livable.

If Housemate #2 is committed to leaving no tip unless they're straight-up asked for one (which really just sounds like they don't wanna get publicly called out for something they already know is stingy—I see you, Housemate #2), then think of it this way: you're not tipping the server for doing the typical work of running a takeout order to your car. You're paying for a service that has, almost overnight, become hazardous for the employee. Old Salty might get some flack for her endless "leave a good tip" mantra on a good day, but sugar, these aren't good days, and pretending that we're living in normal times doesn't do anyone any good. If you have the money budgeted for takeout, do you maybe have enough to kick a couple of extra bucks to the person who's taking some real risks in getting it into your hands? Just maybe?

Hold on to that Housemate #1, though. I like their big, bold talk about moral obligations. You and Housemate #1 can sit in my section anytime.

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