Tip the Messenger

A holiday tipping guide.

Image: Dave Dugdale

Tipping is a peculiar thing. It can feel strange to pay a person twice for a single job. I pay you for the coffee…and then I pay you for the coffee? And now that it’s the holidays, it can feel doubly odd to tip someone once for work they still have to do the rest of the year.

Knowing who to tip is just something you learn. Waiters and waitresses? Mandatory. Bartenders? Near compulsory, wit some exceptions. Hairdresser? Generally considered good form but optional. Sanitation workers? Rarely if ever. Doormen? Once a year is enough. And that doesn’t even cover the percentages.

Maybe we should think about tipping more logically. A tip is financial recognition of a worker’s skill, strength, or endurance. If nothing else, it’s an acknowledgement that the server assumes a risk the patron is unwilling to take.

As it is right now, figuring out who gets tipped and how much is determined largely by culture, not logic. We tip the taxi driver, but not the bus driver. We tip the pizza delivery guy, but not the postman. Even though in all of these the service is largely the same: the transfer of people or goods from point A to point B.

To reason it out, it makes sense to tip the pizza guy because he likely works for a company that can’t afford to give him the same kind of job security and professional benefits that a government position with the postal service could afford. Also, he might be using his own transportation to make the delivery, and the additional strain on his vehicle is probably not something covered by his employer.

But that’s not how anyone thinks of it. The pizza guy is an extension of the restaurant. He is a motorized waiter. He has taken the extra step of not only serving us at the table, but at our table. We tip the pizza delivery guy because he’s delivering pizza. The postman we don’t tip because we don’t tip postal workers, and not because he has a steadier job and government pension. (It should be mentioned, however, that the USPS also has extremely rigorous guidelines regarding what employees can and cannot accept in the way of tips.)

As it happens, I’m in the delivery business. I work as a bike messenger in San Francisco. Occasionally customers tip me. (I’d put the figure at around three percent, so about one out of every thirty.) Because I mainly deliver non-perishable parcels and inedible documents, I’m generally lumped in with the post office, even though the professional structure of the job runs more like pizza delivery. It’s about speed. As many deliveries in a day as possible. Start here, end there, fast as I can, and without benefits.

I don’t want to claim that I’m more deserving than the pizza guy (still less than the postal service) or that I should expect any kind of holiday bonus just for doing my work, but I don’t have a vehicle around me as I go head to head with rush hour and a broken bone means I lose my job.

In the US, tips more often represent obligation than appreciation. If instead consumers consider who performs the work they are least able, likely, or willing to do, then trash collectors — and maybe even bike messengers — would make significantly more than they currently do. Maybe it’s because I’m not much of a drinker, but sanitation seems a far more necessary service than tending bar, yet in San Francisco sanitation workers make $18.48/hr compared to ~$26.50 for bartenders. (for messengers it’s a paltry $12.04 an hour) I don’t doubt that trash collectors and bartenders both work very hard to be good at their jobs, but I’ve never seen a bartender risk a tetanus infection while mixing a Moscow Mule. (Still less seen one get clipped by a Fedex truck while reaching for a swizzle stick.)

I’m not asking for more money for myself — besides being bad form, I’m not sure I deserve it — but with the holidays now upon us tipping is an easy way to spread the spirit and to do real measurable good for people you know. So if you’re considering holiday tipping, here’s a short primer:

  1. Cash is easiest and most helpful. If you’re unsure of how much is the right amount this A-Z guide from The Care is a great reference. (Though still slightly flawed. Personally I think it’s fine to tip a tailor.) If you’re unsure if someone can accept cash, just ask! Or in the case of a city service, give a call to the office.
  2. If you would prefer to give a gift instead, consider something homemade, edible, and shareable. A twenty dollar value is a good upper limit.
  3. If both of these are out for whatever reason, let them know how much you’ve appreciated their service. Even better, give their manager a call and let them know. Customer praise can put someone in line for a promotion.

Not every profession out there comes with benefits, still less a holiday bonus, and there are a lot of service professionals — in home care attendants, dog groomers, babysitters, and yes, postal workers and pizza delivery guys — who are there for us all throughout the year. It’s a good time to remember them.

Cirrus Wood is a bike messenger and freelance writer/photographer. He lives in Berkeley and works in San Francisco

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