For delivery drivers, every shift is a game of gig economy roulette: Will customers tip? And if they do, how much? The answers determine their livelihoods.
“It’s like gambling,” Brantley Bush, an Uber Eats driver, told my colleague Kellen Browning, a technology reporter.
Kellen rode along with drivers in wealthy Los Angeles neighborhoods, pulling up to gated estates to deliver food to millionaires. Tips varied widely. Bush once received a $130 tip from Doc Rivers, the former Los Angeles Clippers coach. Some customers tipped nothing.
There is no collective understanding of what we owe delivery drivers in tips. While established etiquette governs tipping in restaurants, a clear protocol is lacking for apps. This confusion is one reason for the wide variation in the tips delivery drivers receive. Let me explain.
Undertipping on apps
Tipping for food service used to be straightforward. We added around 20 percent to restaurant bills, dropped spare change in tip jars and had cash on hand for pizza deliveries and takeout.
Tipping has not only been entrenched in American life but also formalized as part of the economy. The U.S. is unusual among developed countries in allowing tipped workers to make below the minimum wage, sometimes as low as $2.13 an hour.
Delivery apps upended these norms in two ways.
First, apps have changed the timing of a tip. Delivery services like Uber Eats and DoorDash ask people to tip when they order, unraveling the logic that a tip is compensation for good service. Customers now aren’t sure what they are paying workers for or how much they should give.
Second, apps have transformed what was once an in-person exchange into a digital transaction. This depersonalizes the tip and can discourage generous tipping. While diners in restaurants can see the work of servers, apps obscure the work of delivery drivers. Customers may not meet the driver at all, given the option of no-contact delivery.
“Drivers wonder why people aren’t tipping more,” Kellen told me. “They’ve realized most people aren’t thinking about the human element that goes into delivering their food.”
The possibility of overtipping
In the absence of clear norms for tipping on apps, many customers are picking the path of least resistance: the app’s suggested tip.
This behavior gives power to technology companies to determine the gratuity. The size and placement of a tip button on an app can influence a customer’s selection or make it harder to opt out of a tip. If no tip screen appears, customers are less likely to seek it out. This exposes workers to wage fluctuation.
These design choices don’t just affect workers; they’re also upending the customers’ experience. Digital payment platforms are prompting customers to tip in places where tipping didn’t previously exist, like supermarkets, mechanics’ garages and dog kennels. Now, many wonder: Should they tip for snacks at a convenience store? Is it rude to select “No tip” when buying groceries? No one seems to know, and new tipping guides offer directives.
Brian X. Chen, a Times tech columnist, has described these design choices as coercive. He wrote that these types of tips may be investigated as part of the government’s crackdown on “junk fees,” extra costs that businesses profit from while adding little to no value.
“Tipping has gotten out of control, and people are getting really frustrated,” Brian told me. “It’s a source of confusion that ultimately affects everyone, workers and customers alike.”
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What to Watch For
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