How Much Should You Tip For Food During The COVID-19 Pandemic?

The coronavirus is forcing restaurant servers, delivery people and others to work under dangerous conditions. Here's what to tip them.
Keep in mind that when you order delivery from an app, the drivers are likely gig workers who miss out on employee benefits.
Keep in mind that when you order delivery from an app, the drivers are likely gig workers who miss out on employee benefits.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, people have looked to restaurant workers and food delivery drivers to feed them. But the low-wage workers who provide the stay-at-home populace with sustenance aren’t getting paid and tipped enough.

The nonprofit One Fair Wage is pushing for legislation in all 50 states mandating that tipped workers get paid full minimum wage before tips. But so far, only seven states — Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington — require a fair wage. The other 43 states allow tipped workers to be paid a subminimum wage, which federal law sets at $2.13 per hour. (For comparison, the federal minimum wage for untipped workers is $7.25 per hour.)

So tips are crucial for these workers.

How much should you tip restaurant workers?

According to a One Fair Wage report published in November, 83% of restaurant workers surveyed said they’ve seen their tips decline since the pandemic began. Forty percent said they’ve experienced an increase in sexual harassment, including male customers making lewd remarks to female workers like, “Take off your mask so I know how much to tip you,” which is also the title of the report.

Nearly half of workers said that at least one person in their restaurant got COVID-19 and 90% said their employers don’t follow all of the coronavirus safety protocols. Because restaurant workers make so little income, 60% of tipped workers said they didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits.

"[Restaurant] workers are being asked to do way more for a much more hostile population and getting paid way less," said Saru Jayaraman, the president and co-founder of One Fair Wage.
"[Restaurant] workers are being asked to do way more for a much more hostile population and getting paid way less," said Saru Jayaraman, the president and co-founder of One Fair Wage.

Saru Jayaraman, the president and co-founder of One Fair Wage, said tipping has decreased amid the pandemic because sales are down overall; people tip less for takeout, delivery and outdoor dining; and indoor dining entails less attentive service.

“The other reason tips are down is because the clientele has changed,” she said. “People who are concerned about COVID might’ve been regulars at restaurants and are not eating out as much. People who are eating out now are not as concerned about COVID, and they are more aggressive when asked to put on masks and engage in social distancing. So ... workers are being asked to do way more for a much more hostile population and getting paid way less.”

Jayaraman suggested tipping 20% or more for a full indoor dining experience. It’s not asking a lot, considering this: “They’re the only essential workers being asked [by some customers] to remove their protective gear just to get their income,” she said. “So it’s got to end.”

How much should you tip gig workers on delivery apps?

Last summer, Denton, Texas-based gig worker (and COVID-19 long hauler) Willy Solis joined the Gig Workers Collective, a grassroots organization founded in 2020 to help app-based ride-share drivers and delivery workers fight for fair pay. Solis works for the Target-owned app Shipt and has also worked for Grubhub, Instacart and DoorDash. None of those apps require customers to leave a tip.

Yet “it’s vital that we do receive a tip,” Solis told HuffPost. “If we don’t, then we basically are doing the work for less than minimum wage.”

In fact, he noted that when he knows a customer isn’t planning to leave a tip, he doesn’t take that particular gig. Instacart, Grubhub and UberEats disclose the customer’s tip to the shopper or driver before the gig worker grabs the order; Shipt and DoorDash do not. “If I don’t see a tip on the order, I won’t take it,” Solis said.

When the pandemic began in the spring, Solis, who has worked for the apps since 2019, noticed an increase in tips, but now he said he’s averaging less than 5% to 10% on orders. He suspects part of the reason for some of the lower tips he and others receive is “the sticker shock of what’s involved with the price of a hamburger. You obviously don’t want to pay $20, $30 for a hamburger.”

A fair tip, he said, would be 15% to 20% on larger orders and a flat rate of $5 to $10 on smaller orders.

For fast food deliveries, which typically involve smaller orders, Solis thinks flat rates are better “because the percentages of 10, 15, 20 on an order that’s less than $10 is typically not much. I would say the $5, $10, $15 flat rate tips are more ideal.”

If you order from Shipt, Grubhub, Instacart or DoorDash, none of those apps require customers to leave a tip.
If you order from Shipt, Grubhub, Instacart or DoorDash, none of those apps require customers to leave a tip.

Solis also accused Shipt of keeping tips from its gig workers. He said the company has suggested the absence of tips could be related to glitches in its system, but when he tries to correct the issue, the company is hard to get hold of.

“Tips don’t make them any money, so they don’t have any incentive to ensure that we’re properly compensated with gratuity,” Solis said. “From that perspective, they don’t care if we get tips or not.”

Nonetheless, Solis continues to work for Shipt because on some orders he can reap $20 to $25 in tips.

A representative for Instacart said, “Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in North America, shoppers’ earnings from tips nearly doubled — customer tips have been up by as much as 99% during this time.” A rep for Grubhub said, “Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen the percent tip across Grubhub and Seamless going up nearly 15%. So if a diner was tipping 20% before, they tipped more than 22% during the pandemic.” And a rep for Shipt added, “Last year, one of the enhancements we rolled out was the ability for Shipt customers to pre-tip on the Shipt app in advance of receiving their order and since, we’ve seen the percentage of customers that tip increase.”

Keep in mind that delivery drivers don’t receive employer health insurance and may not even be reimbursed for mileage. Solis has driven up to 20 miles for some Grubhub orders, and with every order, the value of his car depreciates.

To make matters worse in these hard times, California voters in November passed Proposition 22, which classifies gig workers as independent contractors, and thus not entitled to the benefits of full-time employees. Recently, supermarket chains Vons and Albertsons announced that they’re firing their in-house unionized drivers and hiring DoorDash drivers because it’s cheaper.

Solis isn’t necessarily arguing for larger tips because of the pandemic. “If a customer wants to be more generous because we’re risking our lives, because we’re risking exposure, and we don’t have any health care, then obviously we’re very appreciative of that,” he said. “But the reality is, we do this for a living. We understand the risks like truck drivers driving down the road understand they could get into a car accident. With that understanding, I don’t think it’s something that should be expected for our tips to be higher because we’re in a pandemic.”

Ideally, Solis and his fellow gig workers want to make above minimum wage and not have to fight for every right.

This is why the Gig Workers Collective is so important. “It’s as grassroots as it’s going to get,” he said. “It’s a bunch of pissed-off workers who have had enough. We feel that we need to speak out.”

The bottom line for customers: if you can afford it, tip restaurant workers and gig workers their fair share, because their livelihoods depend on it.