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Is There Any Tip Big Enough for Service Workers in Coronavirus Hell?

Your server, bartender and delivery driver are risking lives and livelihoods to keep you fed — and many walk away with way less than 20 percent

As of yesterday, Hoboken, New Jersey, has imposed a curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. and closed bars and restaurants except for delivery. Illinois is set to shut down all bars and restaurants by the end of the day. And California Gov. Gavin Newsom asked bars and restaurants to proactively close, all in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 nationwide. 

Still, as many bars, restaurants and strip clubs remain open, people are partying like it’s the end of days, but tipping like it’s just another weeknight. 

On Thursday night, Lindsay, a 36-year-old bartender in Brooklyn, was dealing with her typical regulars, who always do a lot of cocaine. Normally, they’re pretty discreet about it, but given the current state of affairs, they didn’t give a shit anymore — and neither did Lindsay. “I didn’t kick them out, but I told the five of them that they each had to pay me $20 on top of their tabs,” she tells me. “That’s where I’m at — if you can afford to do cocaine at a bar right now, you have to give me $20. That’s just math.”

Lindsay admits that she’s been lucky. She has savings and a handful of regulars who have Venmoed her $10 here and there to make up for not coming into the bar. Even still, for both her and others in the service industry, a 20-percent tip is no longer enough in a coronavirus world. “The only shift that wasn’t cut this week I had two tables all night who both tipped 20 percent. I walked out with $15 after tipping out my bartenders and bussers,” says Hannah, a 24-year-old waitress in San Diego. “I think 30 to 40 percent would be so generous. It’s a really dark time for all of us in the service industry.”

Jessica, a 31-year-old cocktail server in Kansas City, Missouri, was relying on the St. Patrick’s Day Parade to bring in business at her two serving jobs, so when it got cancelled, she braced herself for the worst. But to her surprise, people came out and tipped 50 to 80 percent on their tabs most of the night. “Being vocal about the struggle to maintain a livable income has encouraged people to over-tip to make up for the lack of business, but people are still worried,” she says. “One of my regulars last night said he intended on tipping like he was helping to pay my electricity bill.”

Mark, a 30-year-old server, agrees that people who acknowledge how bad things are have been tipping the best. “I had a couple come in last night and ask me, ‘What’s the best way to order from the menu so that we get the best experience but also you and the establishment get the best deal from us?’” he says, noting that he went out of his way to get them a five-course prix fixe meal with the premium wine pairing. “They tipped me like 35 percent which was $150. That was very cool of them to acknowledge our hardship upfront.”

Not everyone, however, has been as fortunate. Annie, a 30-year-old bartender in New York City, explains that crowds have been smaller, but drunker, more disruptive and less generous. “I even got on the microphone and told everyone that we’re forced to be here during a global pandemic, and they didn’t give a fuck,” she says. “Regulars tipped 30 to 40 percent, but it’s now gotten so scary they’ve stayed home. Rich people don’t like getting sick.”

Not to mention, as many restaurants move to takeout-only, tips are just getting worse. Tess, a 28-year-old hostess in Michigan, says 25 to 30 percent would be fair given the circumstances, but a majority of people don’t tip at all. “It’s rare that I get tipped at all for any takeout orders,” Tess says. “People not tipping on takeout orders has been a chronic problem long before this. If people do tip it tends to be 10 percent or less.”

Pizza delivery drivers have it a bit better, mainly because they’re operating at a higher volume. “I’ve been averaging $8 a pizza,” says Meg, 35, who delivers for a Pizza Hut in Northern Indiana and has stayed busy during the past week. “Thirty to $40 tabs get the highest tips. Really, with what’s going on in the world, I think if you get anything delivered, you should tip well.”

Exotic dancers may have it the worst — putting themselves at such close proximity to strangers for the same amount of tips as before, but from a much smaller pool of patrons. Case in point: When Britney, a 28-year-old dancer in New York, was at work on Friday, it was so dead that one drunk guy tried to haggle and get two dances for the price of one. “We all told him to fuck off,” she says. “Strippers don’t like to be asked to work for free. No one was tipping extra either because it was dead. I told the club I wasn’t coming in this week because a customer licked me last night. No one is being mindful.” 

The thing is, even when people are tipping incredibly well — some bartenders are reporting that certain regulars are tipping upwards of 100 percent — it doesn’t mean it’s worth it. “I don’t want to get sick,” Dave, a 42-year-old bartender in Brooklyn, tells me. “A bunch of people are going to die, and I don’t think we can stop it. I would rather not work, but if we get through this, I’m scared that I won’t have a job. Everyone going out is treating it like a joke. At this point, if you order a Corona, I’m throwing you out of the bar. This is stupid and dangerous.”