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Need for gratuities has reached a tipping point

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The modern U.S. economy is service oriented. The rusting hulks of once-thundering factories are the only witnesses to the days gone by of this country’s industrial past.

These days, with the exponential expansion of the service economy, everyone wants a tip for services rendered, both real and imagined.

I recently had an appointment to see my primary care physician. After wrapping up the routine checkup, he smiled sheepishly and gestured toward a table near the door. A blue Solo cup had a Post-It note affixed that read “TIPS appreciated. Big Med School Loans to Pay!”

O.K., maybe I’m stretching credulity a bit. That didn’t happen, but are we very far from this reality?

Tip cups are everywhere: coffee shops, ice cream parlors, McDonald’s, movie theater ticket booths, deli counters and supermarket checkouts, to name a few.

For businesses that have digital payment capabilities, the guilt-inducing tip shakedown screen is an unavoidable step in checking out, even at self-service shops.

How do you to determine what level of service deserves a tip?

Generally, a tip or gratuity is warranted when it is a component of the compensation or reflective of service above-and-beyond the deed. Think taxicab drivers (inclusive of Uber and Lyft), pizza deliverers, full serve gas station attendants, hotel porters, parking valets, airport baggage handlers and, especially, restaurant workers.

Employees in bars and restaurants are paid below minimum wage. Bartenders earn tips keeping the beer cold, timely tuning the TV to a certain game, knowing how to pour a proper Guinness (a lost art, sadly), and preparing craft cocktails.

Waiters earn their keep by gently dissuading a customer from ordering a well-done steak or advising against a poor palette combination of starter and main. Most of all, waiters earn tips by ensuring that cover delivery is synchronized so one diner is not twisting his napkin in anticipation while the others patiently wait to devour their cooling meals. Remember the bussers who fill water glasses and remove and replace soiled dishes and utensils work for tips, too.

Tips make up the lion’s share of compensation for restaurant workers because they are getting things for you. Theoretically, the better the experience, the higher the tip should be. The generally accepted accounting principle for a tip starts at 20% for good service but by no means is a limit if the service is superb.

For other gratuitous applications, who deserves a tip and the relative size is at the discretion of the customer. For example, if you order a two-scoop ice cream cone and your scooper dishes a third gratis with jimmies, that gesture is tip-worthy. If a disinterested fast food employee hands you a bag of food through a drive-thru window, sorry, her tip cup should not runneth over. In fact, it should not be there at all.

Food delivery apps are pushing the tip envelope into oblivion or outright revolution. Customers end up bidding for the delivery of a cold bag of tacos based on the size of the proposed tip. Here’s a no-strings tip: if the cost of your Whopper, frozen Coke, and rings-fries combo is projected to cost four times the counter price, maybe you should drive there or stay home and make a PB&J sandwich instead. The delivery apps thrive on laziness.

As the holidays approach, the pressure to tip, even with transactions normally devoid of a gratuity, increases.

If you are wracked with guilt by the sight of a tip cup, tip screen or the imploring scowl of a cashier, take a deep breath. Consider whether the act of handing a purchased item across a counter and rotating the screen so you can affix a gratuity is worthy of something beyond what the product costs. If the answer is no, trust your gut and swipe “No Tip.”

Save those extra ducats for your mail carriers, trash collectors and teachers or donate to a Salvation Army Santa.

Paul F. Bradley lives in Yardley.


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